KUT, IRAQ // In the months leading up to Iraq's provincial elections, Hayat Yusif spent her days campaigning as an independent candidate, rallying support for her efforts to improve women's rights. She paid for election posters and leaflets with her own money, and tried to convince the residents of Aziziyah, a town of 80,000 in Wasit province, a place boasting a single female driver, that she could make a positive difference in their lives.
Her campaign was swamped by the well-funded machinery of the big religious institutions that dominate Iraqi politics but, with the backing of her family, she was determined to take part. A teacher, Mrs Yusif would spend mornings in the classroom and worked at politics in her spare hours. On election day, Jan 31, she went along to her local polling station to vote and, despite being a registered candidate, was told she could not.
"I'd waited four years to have that vote. It was my chance to say that the council here has failed us," she said. "When they said I wasn't allowed I couldn't believe it. Then I became angry. I'm still angry." Mrs Yusif was caught up in an electoral register problem that appears to have affected a significant number of would-be voters in Wasit and other provinces. Results of the provincial elections, Iraq's first since 2005, were at least partially announced on Thursday, although precise details about which candidates will take seats on the 14 contested councils are not due for at least another week.
Wasit province, where Mrs Yusif staged her small campaign, was won by Nouri al Maliki's coalition with 15 per cent of the vote. In Baghdad the Iraqi prime minister's coalition won 38 per cent, almost 20 points ahead of his nearest rival, and his coalition performed well across the south, including Basra, reflecting widespread support since he led a military campaign against militia groups. But even before the results were announced there were growing rumblings of discontent that the ballot had not been as successful as the official Iraqi independent election commission has claimed.
Turnout in Wasit province was 54 per cent among the general population, although a great number actually turned out to vote only to be turned away because their names were not on the electoral register. "Many of my supporters went to vote but couldn't," Mrs Yusif said. "I have heard of 100 people who wanted to vote for me but were not allowed to. I don't think I would have won a seat anyway, but that's not the point. The point is that everyone must believe that each vote is important in a democracy.
"I phoned the electoral commission about it and they said they had received 700 telephoned complaints from people who were not allowed to vote in Aziziyah alone. "I don't know if it was deliberate, or a mistake, or a mix-up, but I'm certain it's not a small number of people who were affected." In an interview at the heavily fortified vote-storage warehouse in Kut, Kazim Abdullah Shamri, provincial head of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission, said only those who had failed to complete a mandatory registration process were turned away.
"People were supposed to register their names in advance to take part in the election; it was their responsibility to come and do that," he said. "If they didn't, we can't be expected to do it for them." The general education standards in Wasit are low, he said, which may have explained any confusion about registration. But even members of Wasit's educated elite fell foul of the system, including one of the city's members of parliament, Mohammad al Kteeb, schoolteachers and district officials.
"I didn't register to vote," Mrs Yusif said, "but I didn't know we had to. It was never made clear that you had to do that. If you're on a [food] ration list you automatically register but even the manager of the ration list wasn't allowed to vote." Mr Shamri said no record was kept of numbers of people who tried to vote on election day but were turned away. Thyer al Sarray, a political activist and journalist working as an election observer in a district of Kut, made a point of counting them.
"In one of the stations 410 people came to vote and only 320 were allowed to," he said. "There were 90 people turned away because their names were not listed. "If that was happening at other centres, and I believe it was, that would be a very significant number." Anecdotal evidence from Wasit seems to support the idea that many people took the trouble to go and vote but could not because of the registration problem. Those who tried but failed to vote seem angry, although unsurprised: they expected foul play from their political parties and believe this is proof it happened. Few accept that it was their fault, or a bureaucratic fumble.
Adding to the suspicions are the high turnout figures for members of the security services, widely seen as beholden to the big political blocs, particularly the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq in Wasit. Soldiers and police officers were allowed to vote in advance of Jan 31 because they were needed to defend polling sites on the day itself, so separate figures are available for them. In Wasit, according to official electoral commission figures, there was a 95 per cent turnout by the security forces. The Supreme Council came second in the province, with 10 per cent of the vote.
Capt Hayder Adnan, a spokesman for the provincial police, said commanders had encouraged their forces to vote but had not advocated any particular party. "It was made clear to everyone that you must vote independently and if anyone was caught putting pressure for a party, that would lead to serious disciplinary action," he said. "There was a high turnout from the security forces because we realise that votes are better than bullets back to the enemy."
Mr Shamri insisted the election had been fair and that there was nothing underhand about the system. "The process has been open and it went without problems," he said. "We have followed the letter of the law and answered all the questions people have asked us." There is a month-long period in which any allegations of cheating will be investigated. Such allegations are, however, limited to the votes that were cast, not those that could not be.
"The problem was not with the counting of the votes," Mr al Sarray said. "The problem happened on polling day and it was not recorded by the electoral commission. In Aziziyah, Mrs Yusif said she would continue to campaign for women's rights, but demanded improvements be made to the registration system before national elections take place later this year. "They can blame the uneducated, but if that's the case, it's the government's job to educate the people about voting," she said. "To be honest, a lot of us expected there would be some kind of dirty tricks; we just thought it would be with the ballot boxes or voting papers. It looks as if it could have been with the election list itself.