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Iraq: Referendum On Saddam Aims For 100 Percent Endorsement

  • Charles Recknagel

Iraqis are going to the polls today to vote in a referendum to approve President Saddam Hussein for another seven years. Officials say they want a 100 percent endorsement of the leader and to get it are organizing massive participation in the closely controlled vote. As RFE/RL reports, the referendum is the latest effort to foster the personality cult of Saddam Hussein, who as "father of the nation" is the sole candidate on the "yes-or-no" ballot.

Prague, 15 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Iraq has some 12 million eligible voters, and President Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party has spared no effort to get them all to the polls for today's referendum.

For the organizers, the goal in the vote to endorse Saddam for another seven years in office is high. They can be sure the president will be overwhelmingly elected because there is no other name on the ballot. But they still want to do better than the last referendum in 1995, when Saddam won 99.96 percent of the vote.

So, the run-up to today's referendum has seen the ruling party mount a get-out-the-vote drive that has combined all the trappings of a Western democratic campaign with all the usual no-nonsense incentives of Iraq's totalitarian system.

One centerpiece has been the official campaign song. For that, party leaders chose Whitney Houston's version of "I Will Always Love You."

Then there have been the election spots on the three state-controlled television stations. Not just 90-second campaign messages but dawn-to-dusk footage -- often accompanied by the theme song -- of the sole candidate presiding over military parades, firing off one-handed rifle salutes to the soldiers, kissing children, and praying with the faithful.

At the same time, there have been demonstrations by supporters who have surged into the streets waving Kalashnikovs to show the ferocity of their devotion. Some of the demonstrators later assembled at hospitals to donate their blood for campaign slogans written on white banners. The slogans proclaim that "Saddam's heart beats as one with his people."

The mass demonstrations continued during polling today, with one gathering of schoolchildren in Baghdad chanting slogans informing U.S. President George W. Bush how much they, too, love Saddam Hussein: "Bush listen well: All of us love Saddam Hussein."

But there are reasons beyond devotion that might persuade Iraqi voters to vote -- and only "yes." Over the past weeks, Baghdad has been rife with rumors that the regime has found a way of knowing how each voter casts his or her ballot in the simple "yes-or-no" referendum. The rumors say the polling stations are using an invisible ink that records the name of each voter on the back of his or her ballot, making anyone marking "no" easy to find later.

At the closely supervised polling stations around Iraq today -- where no international election observers are permitted -- voters told Western journalists they have only a "yes" vote in mind, such as this Baghdad woman quoted by Reuters: "I come to elect Saddam Hussein, as a president for me and all Iraqi people. He is brother and son to each Iraqi family."

Poll organizers have told Western journalists in Baghdad privately that they are confident this year they will get a full 100 percent turnout when official results are announced tomorrow. And they say that show of unanimity will refute U.S. talk of ousting Saddam not only to disarm Iraq but to liberate the Iraqi people.

One of Iraq's official dailies, "Babel," which is owned by Saddam's son Uday, stressed the importance of the vote this way. It wrote yesterday: "One of our civilized responses to the hollow arrogance [of the United States] is that the proud Iraqis will one voice and write with one hand...the biggest yes' in history to the leader, thinker, inspirer and symbol, President Saddam Hussein."

But even as the ruling party bills the expected 100 percent referendum as a timely slap in the face for Washington, many observers see the vote as only the latest effort to foster the personality cult that has taken shape around Saddam Hussein over the past two decades. That cult identifies Saddam as the sole individual in Iraq capable of leading the country and defying an array of enemies portrayed as seeking to destroy the Iraqi people.

Kathleen Ridolfo, a regional specialist at RFE/RL, says that Saddam has steadily built his image as sole ruler since taking power as Iraqi president in 1979, "If you look at the way his regime has operated, Saddam has successfully put his hands in every aspect of Iraqi society and dominated every aspect of Iraqi society."

She says Saddam has fostered a personality cult as one way to make his own position as the country's leader appear unassailable to would-be rivals: "Regime survival and self-preservation is the main reason. If you look at the history of modern Iraq, each regime has had to deal with the idea of insurrection and coups, as Saddam knows very well, having overthrown a regime himself [as part of the successful Ba'thist coup of 1968]."

Evidence of Saddam's personality cult is everywhere in Iraq. The country is awash in posters and banners bearing his image, some as big as the side of a building. There are also hundreds of statues. One of Iraq's most prominent sculptors, Khalil Khamis Farhan, is reported to have produced a statue of Saddam every six months since the Gulf War of 1991.

The most prominent monument in Baghdad today is a massive sculpture of Saddam's two fists holding aloft crossed swords. The swords form a triumphal arch over the capital's main boulevard. The fists are modeled on Saddam's own hands to the minutest detail.

At the same time, Saddam has become one of Iraq's most prominent literary figures. That status has come with the publication of an anonymous novel popularly attributed to him two years ago.

The novel, "Zabibah and the King," is said to be an allegorical talk between Saddam and his people that lays down his belief that only an all-powerful leader can keep the nation stable and safe. The book has since been made into a musical that is said to be the most expensive Iraqi television production ever.

All the portraits and statues of Saddam, as well as the book and musical, fit into what has become a decades-long process in Iraq of assuring that all art and culture serves the regime. That function is enforced by state censorship of all publications and the exclusion of all non-Ba'thist teachers from the educational system.

The voting in today's referendum to endorse Saddam for another seven years in office is due to conclude at 7 p.m.