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Iraq: Sunni Arabs Lose Bid To Vote Down Constitution

Voters at the polls on 15 October Preliminary results from the 15 October referendum on the Iraqi draft constitution point to a loss by Sunni Arabs who sought to vote down the draft. While the final tally is not expected for at least another day, local electoral officials have told journalists that it appears the draft got a "yes" vote in two Sunni Arab-populated governorates: Diyala and Ninawah. It appears that a "no" vote won out only in the Sunni Arab-populated governorates of Salah Al-Din and Al-Anbar. The Transitional Administrative Law (TAL) stipulates that the draft will fail only if three or more governorates reject it.

In light of their apparent defeat, it is unclear what position those Sunni Arab groups that stood opposed to the referendum might adopt after the referendum results are certified. Some leaders, such as Salih al-Mutlaq, have already claimed that the preliminary results are fraudulent. But the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq (IECI) has said it received no complaints of impropriety from observer groups or citizens on the day of the referendum.

Sunni Arab groups are now focusing on upcoming national elections in December as their best chance at influencing the political process, and many groups have already begun low-level campaigning in an effort to gain support for those elections.

The ability of such groups to gain parliamentary seats will depend largely on their ability to present coherent platforms and visions to their constituencies. So far, Sunni Arabs have largely failed because they lack a solid political program. Moreover, Sunni Arab parties possess no cohesive vision or platform under which they could unite, as Kurdish and Shi'ite parties did ahead of parliamentary elections in January. A number of Sunni Arab groups have noted the benefits of working together as part of a coalition, but many leaders have said such a coalition would have to wait until after the election. It remains unlikely however, that a Sunni Arab coalition could be formed in just a few short months, given the ideological gaps that exist among Sunni Arab groups.

A Closer Look At The Vote

Adil al-Lami, director-general of the electoral commission, cautioned media outlets, saying the commission has not released any official figures on the referendum and media reports thus remain speculative, Al-Arabiyah television reported on 16 October. But a number local electoral officials have commented on the referendum to media outlets, providing some insight into the final vote count.

Farid Ayar, spokesman for the Independent Electoral Commission, told reporters at a 15 October press briefing after polls closed that turnout across Iraq's 18 governorates was medium (33-66 percent) to high (above 66 percent). The proportion of eligible voters who went to the polls in the volatile Al-Anbar governorate was not released, while there was low voter turnout (under 33 percent) in the Al-Qadisiyah governorate in south-central Iraq.

The Sunni-Populated Governorates

"The [final] results have not come out yet but the [preliminary data] are promising," Manaf Hasan, an Independent Electoral Commission member in the Ninawah governorate (Mosul), told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) on 16 October. "So far, we have gathered data from 419,804 out of the total number of voters in Mosul. [The number of] those who have voted 'yes' is 326,774...while [the number of] those who have voted 'no' is 90,065 and 2,965 votes were invalid. In Mosul city, there were 95 polling stations, 52 of which were on the left bank [Kurdish-populated area, east of the Tigris River] and 43 on the right bank [Sunni Arab-populated area, west of the Tigris]."

Mahmud Abdullah, who is a representative of the Kurdistan Islamic Union and a commission member in the Ninawah governorate, told RFI: "I believe that the positive participation of the Iraqi Islamic Party and the Sunni Al-Waqf Council in the referendum has contributed a lot to a positive outcome of the Iraqi referendum in Mosul.... We are optimistic that the [security] situation in the restive areas of Iraq will become more stabilized after...large numbers [of people] took part in the referendum."

Turnout was also high in Al-Ta'mim governorate (which includes the capital of Kirkuk and is a mixture of Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs, Kurds, and Turkomans), where Farhad Talabani, head of the Kirkuk branch of the electoral commission told RFI on 16 October, "We expect that turnout will be over 60 percent." Reuters reported on 17 October only a 40 percent turnout in the governorate, adding that 60 percent of voters voted "yes" and 40 percent voted "no" in the referendum.

In Salah Al-Din, Al-Arabiyah television reported on 16 October that 71 percent of voters voted "no" in the referendum. Sa'd al-Rawi, spokesman for the Al-Anbar branch of the electoral commission, said that 90 percent of voters went to the polls in Al-Anbar, 99 percent of whom voted "no," Reuters reported on 17 October. Al-Rawi said just 50 people voted to back the constitution.

In Diyala, Amir Latif al-Yahya, the head of Independent Electoral Commission's Diyala governorate branch, told RFI on 16 October: “The turnout has been very high. I personally had been expecting a high turnout but not as high as it came to be, in fact.”

Asked about complaints by citizens about the long distances (vehicular traffic was banned on 15 October) between their homes and polling stations, he said: “Within the security plan, we were agreed that buses would be provided for the transport of voters from their places of residence to polling centers. The long distance to some areas and the small number of buses may have deprived some from getting to the [polling] centers. We will do our best to manage this issue in the next elections."

Al-Yahya said that he was also present during the detainee voting at Camp War Horse, located on the grounds of Ba'qubah Airport. "There were 39 inmates from prisons of the Multinational Force, 36 of whom have publicly expressed their ‘yes’ to the constitution while the other three voted ‘no.'"

The Shi'ite-Populated Governorates

In the Shi'ite-populated areas of central and southern Iraq, turnout was strong in some areas but lower than expected in other towns. RFI reported from Al-Najaf on 16 October that unofficial estimates put turnout at around 40 percent, adding that the turnout was much lower than that for January elections.

Local residents interviewed by RFI expressed apathy over political progress and many complained over the poor state of services in the governorate, which they said had deteriorated since January. Other cited the long distances from their homes to polling centers, saying no transportation was provided by the governorate.

Local residents in Al-Najaf told RFI that disputes between the religious leadership and political parties in the governorate played a role in upsetting citizens, who, as a result, opted to stay away from the polls. Others cited the influence of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr on the political process. Al-Sadr supporters demonstrated against the constitution in nearby Al-Hillah last week (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 14 October 2005).

Voter turnout was unexpectedly low in the Shi'ite-populated Al-Qadisiyah governorate, the Independent Electoral Commission said on 16 October. As in Al-Najaf, local residents interviewed by RFI on 17 October pointed to frustration over deteriorating services and their discontent with the local and central government as their reason for staying away from the polls. An RFI correspondent confirmed firsthand that the state of roads and civil services in general was indeed poor. He said, however, that the security situation in Al-Qadisiyah governorate was very good.

Al-Qadisiyah Governor Idris Khalil Hamza denied that the low turnout was related to voter discontent with the government, saying no direct link should be drawn between the state of services and the constitution -- which he said is intended to benefit all Iraqis. He admitted, however, that he was surprised by the low turnout.

RFI's correspondent quoted sources as saying that voter turnout in Al-Qadisiyah was 40-45 percent. Sa'd al-Abdali, head of the Independent Electoral Commission's Al-Qadisiyah branch, told RFI that he estimated 50-55 percent of voters came to the polls. That figure seems high, given that Independent Electoral Commission official Hamdiyah al-Husayni called turnout in Al-Qadisiyah "low" -- meaning less than 33 percent -- in a 15 October press briefing in Baghdad.

According to local election chief al-Abdali, voter lists arrived late and incomplete. Also, an unspecified foreign company in charge of “securing some administrative aspects of the ballot” worked “without proper coordination with the [Independent Electoral Commission] office in [the Al-Qadisiyah governorate capital] Al-Diwaniyah," RFI quoted al-Abdali as saying.

In Babil, Qays al-Hasnawi, spokesman for the Babil branch of the electoral commission, told RFI on 16 October that participation was very high, with 96 percent turnout in the Al-Hashimiyah district of the city. "We can estimate the turnout at 70 percent" overall, he said.

The process was not flawless, however. Al-Hasnawi said that badges to be worn by commission staffers arrived late, and some voters were unable to reach polling centers because of long distances and the absence of transport. "There were also difficulties in checking the register of voters," al-Hasnawi said. "The register of voters was difficult to print.... There were many misprints and errors and some data were incomplete. Many people had to return without casting their votes in the referendum because their names were not included [in the register]. Although they had voted in the previous [general] elections and [recorded] their names in the register of voters, these names did not appear in the newly printed voters register."

The Kurdish Governorates

The Independent Electoral Commission said that voter turnout was "high" in the Al-Sulaymaniyah governorate and "medium" in the Irbil and Dahuk governorates, while early speculation in the media suggested that the referendum will pass overwhelmingly in the Kurdistan region. Kurdish support for the referendum is unsurprising; Kurdish officials have said the draft constitution affords them more rights than they had under any previous Iraqi regime. Moreover, Kurds typically follow the "party line" and both the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the region's two largest parties, called on Kurds to vote "yes" in the referendum. The television channels and newspapers of both parties also encouraged a "yes" vote.

Some Problems Reported

The Independent Electoral Commission acknowledged that other transgressions took place on referendum day, RFI reported on 15 October. Hamdiyah al-Husayni told reporters on 15 October that troops stationed in camps and military barracks were denied participation in the referendum. "As a result, security troops and army personnel expressed objections in some areas because they were denied participation in this process," al-Husayni said. "Pressure was brought to bear on some centers.... When the [Independent Electoral Commission] was informed of this matter, the relevant authorities were contacted. The army and security personnel were told that the [Independent Electoral Commission] will consider the possible adoption of special arrangements for voting by the security personnel stationed in military camps and barracks in the future."

Al-Husayni added that there were some reported incidents of ballot boxes, papers, or envelopes being stolen, but said those incidents did not affect the voting process because the commission had anticipated such events and provided extra ballots to voting centers. She added that one news channel (not identified) gave $5 bills to people to vote "no" in the referendum. Ten polling station workers were abducted by terrorists in two polling centers in the Al-Jazirah and Al-Khalidiyah neighborhoods of Baghdad.

For all the news about Iraq, see RFE/RL's special webpage "The New Iraq." See Also: "Iraq Votes: Constitution Referendum"