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Interview: Rajiv Chandrasekaran Discusses Today's Presidential Election In Iraq, Which Has Saddam Hussein Running Unopposed For Another Seven-Year Term

All Things Considered: October 15, 2002

Iraq Election

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

Today is election day in Iraq. Iraqis went to the polls to vote yes or no on whether Saddam Hussein should be given another seven-year term as president. Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran is in Baghdad and joins us now.

No other candidate on the ballot and not much doubt about how this election will turn out, I guess.

Mr. RAJIV CHANDRASEKARAN (The Washington Post): Indeed. This would be any American incumbent's dream election. Polling places festooned with pictures of the incumbent; rallies, sort of victory-type rallies, before the election even began; non-stop television air time; front-page newspaper coverage, all encouraging people to go out and vote yes. And that appears to be what most people have done today. I was at a couple of polling places in the city of Tikrit. And it was a very boisterous crowd, lots of singing, dancing, chanting, clapping. And everybody, it seemed, was showing off a ballot with the `yes' box picked, and some people even went so far as to prick their thumbs with a pin and vote with a blot of blood.

YDSTIE: And the big question, I guess, is whether Saddam will get 100 percent of the vote this time. Last time, he only got 99.96 percent. Twelve hundred people, I guess, didn't vote for him.

SHAPIRO: It's not at all clear whether some of those votes were intentional nos, perhaps, or abstentions or people just getting a little confused. I did witness one Bedouin farmer showing up to a polling place today, kind of unclear on what to do. And a uniformed man very quickly sort of took him aside and took out his pen and put a nice, big check mark, you know, under the `yes' box.

YDSTIE: And I guess if you vote no, the government knows who you are. They cross-check the voter registration with the numbers on the ballots, and so they can find out who decides to vote no.

SHAPIRO: Well, that was something that was initially believed to be the case. Today in a couple of the polling places that I went to, it didn't appear that there was any coding on ballots. But there was no privacy, either. It's all done in public. And given the mood here, it seems highly unlikely that anybody choose to sort of publicly mark an X in the `no' box.

YDSTIE: What have Iraqis who you've talked to been saying about the election? Can they speak freely about it?

SHAPIRO: Well, it's very difficult as a foreign journalist here. Most interviews are monitored by a minder from the Information Ministry. So the line that most of us are getting is that this is as much an affirmation of their support for their great leader as it is a sort of a stick in the eye of the American president.

Privately, a few people I've spoken to see this as a bit of propaganda, but there is no doubt that there are some very strong feelings here for the president. He is seen as a hero of Iraqi resistance. Negative attitudes toward the Americans have hardened here since the end of the Gulf War, particularly because of the imposition of economic sanctions. And also, there's a lot of animosity towards the United States' policy toward Israel.

YDSTIE: Of course, we can't let you go without talking a little bit about the campaign theme song that Saddam Hussein apparently chose.

SHAPIRO: Well, it's Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," and it's all over the television, all over the radio. The theme here is `Everybody loves Saddam.' And his campaign posters feature big hearts. One of the English-language newspapers here had a front-page editorial today calling Saddam `a leader for a heart-shaped land.' And so the music is there all the time.

YDSTIE: Thanks very much, Rajiv.

SHAPIRO: Good afternoon.

YDSTIE: Rajiv Chandrasekaran is a reporter for The Washington Post. He spoke with us from Baghdad.

SOUNDBITE OF "I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU"

Ms. WHITNEY HOUSTON: (Singing) And I will always love you. I will always love you. I will always...

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