“The minute those damn ballot boxes were closed, it felt like some heavy burden had been removed from our shoulders,” said a young man climbing out of his car in central Mosul, just a day after the provincial elections were finally held in this troubled part of Iraq.
Most of the country held provincial elections in late April. But elections in the provinces of Anbar and Ninawa, the centre of recent anti-government protests, were postponed until June 20 because of alleged lack of security here.
And after an influx of military and security services into the provinces, as well as a round of assassinations and bombings, the provincial elections were finally held in those states last week. In the northern province of Ninewa, where there are around 1.8 million eligible voters deciding between 680 candidates, competing for 39 seats, voter turn out was frustratingly low, hovering at under 40 percent.
But for the three young men heading to a café in central Mosul today, they’re just glad the election furore has passed. “It’s calm again,” says one of them, Nasim, who works as a taxi driver here. “And those who were making such rosy promises have shut up,” he said with some satisfaction. Previous to the elections this part of Mosul, a popular area well known for its many cafes and restaurants, had been almost empty. There had been a series of extremist attacks and to many Mosul locals, it felt too dangerous to be in such a crowded place. However today, just one day after the elections, it was as full of people and cars as if it was a public holiday.
The three young men took seats at a table on the sidewalk and waited for their dinner. “Now we’re supposed to forget about all the victims of these elections, killed in cold blood, because of political conflict,” sighed one of the men, Aziz, a university student. “Life can get back to normal.”
At that moment a television mounted on the external wall of the restaurant caught the group’s eyes. An announcement from Iraqi’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) was being played. Despite the fact that close to 700 candidates had competed in the provincial elections, among them 168 women, the voter turnout was low, the announcement said. Voter turnout didn’t get higher than 37 percent and was much lower in some areas.
“I expected that,” Aziz commented. “After all, they [the extremists] were trying to thwart the electoral process.” He leaned over and gave his mobile phone to Nasim and his other friend, Ahmed. On the phone were pictures of dead bodies, damaged buildings and burning cars, the results of bombs set off before the elections. “And all of these pictures are also posted on YouTube,” Aziz added.
Ahmed had worked for IHEC temporarily at one of the polling stations. “No wonder nobody was enthusiastic about voting,” he said and reminded the others that ten candidates had actually been killed and that seven others had survived attempts on their lives. “One of my colleagues actually left for Erbil [in the comparatively safe, nearby region of Iraqi Kurdistan] after his father nominated himself to run for office. I know a lot of others who did the same,” Ahmed said.
“The head of our polling centre got a threatening call, where the caller said they would kill him,” Ahmed continued, starting on his appetizer. “He resigned straight away and left the province.” Indeed hundreds of extra employees were brought to Mosul from other provinces in order to fill this, and other, positions.
“A lot of people left the day before elections,” agreed Nasim. “I saw a lot of newspaper reports about how people were scared to stay at home in Mosul.”
Ahmed tapped on the table, his finger still stained by the ink from voting. “IHEC says the elections went well but they’re not telling you everything,” he said. For example, he had heard that the electoral lists in many places were out of date and that political parties had broken a number of electoral rules in some areas.
Aziz added that he also thought that barely any female voters had come to cast their vote in areas considered even vaguely dangerous. And nobody could vote on their behalf either, he said. He had also heard from the head of the polling booth he voted at, that almost 10 percent of the papers there had not been correctly filled in or were invalid for some other reason.
At a table near them, were another five men also talking about the elections. The group began chatting together and they came to the conclusion that, as one man from the other table put it, “a new season of elephants fighting has started”. By this, the group were talking about the fact that the two parties that got the most votes in this area were an Iraqi Kurdish party and the party led by Atheel al-Nujaifi, who had been governor of Ninawa up until the elections. The Kurdish list had gained 11 seats of the 39 available and al-Nujaifi’s party had got eight. Next down the list was a party backed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and they only had four seats.
Clearly none of the other parties competing had even come close to the votes these two groups had. But the two parties were also long time political opponents. Whilst al-Nujaifi was ostensibly the governor of Ninawa, the Sunni Muslim politician was certainly not in charge of the whole of province. Kurdish military forces, the Iraqi army representing Baghdad and local security forces had split control of Ninawa in the past. As a result Mosul has been at the frontline of ethnic tensions in Iraq.
The debaters concluded that if al-Nujaifi managed to retain the relatively friendly relations he had been fostering with the Iraqi Kurdish before the elections, then it seemed likely he would come out on top again. The former governor had already stated as much on his Facebook page, where he said his party would be willing to work with any winning parties who cared about provincial progress. He even said a number of agreements had already been reached.
But by now it was getting late and at around 10:30 the three young men left the café and went back to their car. As they went Ahmed watched the black smoke emerging from a grill mingling with cigarette smoke and the fragrant mist from nearby shishah-pipe smokers. “That’s exactly what’s going to happen the provincial government comes together,” he joked, gesturing at the murky, grey fog.
“Fasten your seat belts,” he told his friends as they got into the car. “I’m afraid there’s going to be more violence. It’s like that old saying,” he sighed. “We’re like the grass beneath two elephants wrestling. We will be crushed underfoot when they fight. And it won’t matter who wins.”