Iraqi Voter Turnout Lower Than Expected

Iraqis went to the polls in provincial elections over the weekend, and most observers say the voting was fair and free. But turnout was lower than expected. There are complaints that many eligible voters were left off the voting rolls.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Voters in Iraq voted in provincial elections over the weekend and most observers are calling the election fair and free. However, the turnout was lower than expected. There are complaints that many eligible voters were left off the voting roles. NPR's JJ Sutherland joins us from Baghdad. Good morning, JJ.

JJ SUTHERLAND: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: So how did the voting go? The campaign was certainly more active than the 2005 election

SUTHERLAND: It was much more active. The 2005 candidates were actually afraid to have their faces seen, and over the past few weeks in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities it seems like every vertical surface is covered -was covered with campaign posters showing one candidate or another. But the voting went very well. The country was under tight security, but there was no major violence, no reports of fraud or intimidation at the polls. And you know, people were hailing it as a very smooth operation.

WERTHEIMER: So tell me about the complaints. Why did voters get left off the rolls?

SUTHERLAND: Well, in two areas, in Sunni neighborhoods, mainly in Baghdad, and Kurdish areas, in Diala Province, thousands of voters' names weren't on the roles because they had been internally displaced during the sectarian civil war here in 2006 and 2007, and this is hundreds of thousands of people. And they apparently didn't follow the fairly strict registration procedures to re-register in their new neighborhoods. But the problem really is that these voters, mainly Sunnis and Kurds, are voicing suspicion that they are being disenfranchised by the Shiite government, though the Independent High Election Commission here says this is simply that they did not follow the correct procedure.

WERTHEIMER: So do you have any sense of who's in the lead or when we'll have results?

SUTHERLAND: Well, initial reports - and I have to be very careful, there are very initial reports - looks like Prime Minister Maliki's Dawa Party did very well, as did some other secular parties. And again, these are initial results that the religious parties did not do quite as well. But it will be days before we actually know. It could even be weeks. But the key issue here is that these elections are seen as legitimate by the Iraqi people, and whether power can change hands peacefully through the electoral process rather through the barrel of a gun, which has never happened in Iraq. So it's going to be very interesting to watch in the next few weeks.

WERTHEIMER: So what do you think the election means for the country's political stability? You said the religious parties did not do as well, you think, as expected. So is that important?

SUTHERLAND: Well, it is important. The Iraqis that I've spoken with have been very disenchanted with their government. They see them as corrupt; they see them as ineffective; they see them as just really in it for themselves. And so if the initial results bear out, it does seem that they are turning to another route. But you know, this is an important step in the Iraq process, especially these provincial elections are really sort of a lead-up to the national elections later on this year, and if these go well and are seen as legitimate, hopefully those might go well as well.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's JJ Sutherland reporting from Baghdad. JJ, thank you.

SUTHERLAND: Thank you, Linda.

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