Throughout the day on Wednesday Baghdad residents came to cast their ballots. There was nervousness among some at first. This election campaign has been bloody and some people I spoke to were scared that their polling stations would be attacked. Then, as news filtered through that the morning passed without incident, the mood changed in Baghdad. People began to arrive at the polling stations and smiles replaced frowns.
Senior citizens struggled to walk in the heat, children chomped on sweets and licked ice creams with a skip in their steps. Baghdad’s youth used the day as an excuse to dress up. Young women wore brightly coloured headscarves and young men wore seemingly physics-defying, tight clothes that are all the rage here.
Everyone who voted received a mark. A small purple blot on the finger that voters proudly waved like a sort of medal. It was a sign that they risked the violence that has plagued the campaign.
Iraq went all-out to secure its polls. In the days before the election, the military and police played their cards close to their chests and revealed little about the security plan. Then, 24 hours before polling day, it became apparent. A curfew would be in place from 10pm that would be lifted two hours before the polls opened at 7am. All commercial air traffic would be stopped until after they closed. Helicopters would mount patrols and the only traffic allowed on Baghdad’s roads would be authorised and military vehicles.
For the children, the empty roads became a playground. For others, the inconvenience of not having a car was more than compensated for by the fact that they could vote safely.
Nerves turn to excitement
Awad is 26. It is his second election and he brought his son along. “I was a bit nervous this morning but as the day went on and Baghdad was quiet, I got excited. I watched people come to polling stations on television and I thought, I want to be a part of it. I hope my son remembers this day and that we Iraqis are able to take part in a democracy.”
Awad hung round after voting and chatted away with friends from the neighbourhood. It was inspiring to see.
This country sees bombs and violence every day. I hear them on the streets and I have spent more hours walking around bomb sites than I care to remember. So to witness a day that many thought would be bloody, and would cause Iraqis heartache and pain, change to an event where Iraqi’s celebrated and took advantage of their democratic rights is quite something.
But today is just the beginning of a painful political process that will see all the parties begin muckraking, point-scoring, deal-making and performing all the other tricks that make modern politics so thrilling for those that thrive on intrigue and power, and so disheartening for those who have to live under these practitioners of the dark arts.
Today was a chance to celebrate and be thankful that, bar a few isolated incidents, Iraq voted. But the euphoria will be short-lived. This year has already seen 2,700 people die violently and that will only continue as Iraq remains as fractured as ever.