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Iraq election

I spent most of last week in Baghdad as an election observer.

We were billeted in the famous Al Rasheed Hotel in what is still referred to as the ‘Green Zone’.

The road to the airport on the other side of the city is known locally as ‘route Irish’ for reasons I wasn’t able to figure out. But it was at one time the most dangerous stretch of motorway in the world with regular roadside bombs, suicide bombers and drive by shootings.

The monitoring mission started in August long before the 7 MEPs showed up. While there are many hundreds of international observers, we were the only Parliamentarians.

The other observers were for the most part the staff of UN and embassies based here. This meant that we were most likely to be more outspoken.

So, at 7am on election day we set out under fairly heavy security to the town of Hilla about 100k south of Baghdad. Each of us was required to wear heavy body armour on the drive south.

I shared a car with Hannah Neumann, a Green MEP with lots of experience of Iraq and learnt a lot from her.

We visited about 6 polling stations and took careful notes of what we saw. The technical side was good but turnout was extremely low. By 5.30pm, back in Baghdad, I observed one polling station where turnout was still only 12% with half an hour before close of polls.

The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) announced a turnout of 41% which I was immediately sceptical about. The following day we met in the hotel to collectively draft a statement for the press conference on Tuesday. We changed the heading of the Press statement to draw attention to the low turnout.

We also speculated that this was due to a collapse in public trust in the ability of voters to change the leadership of the country. As a courtesy we read out a copy of our text to the EU ambassadors that afternoon.

It also became clear that the pro-Iranian militias were not accepting the results and alleging fraud.

As we relaxed on Monday evening, a message came through from the Iraqi Prime Minister’s office and from the President. Clearly, the text had been leaked and they requested that we not refer to the low turnout arguing that this was a political comment. Of course, we rejected this request politely. The turnout was a matter of fact.

Results began to come out on Monday evening. It was clear that the Party associated with the militias (Fatah) had had a very poor result. Moqtada al Sadr’s party was clearly the biggest winner. Also the Sunni minority had an excellent result with an increase from 11 seats to 56. At first glance, it appeared as if the low turnout impacted Shia areas more than Sunni areas.

Independents also had a good day with more than 10 elected for the first time, assisted, it would appear, by electoral reforms ahead of this year’s election.

At the time of writing we are preparing for the press conference and hopefully it will all pass off ok.

Overall, the expectation is that a coalition of Shia and Kurdish MPs will form a government. Whether they will achieve any lasting change to the corruption and graft that is part of Iraqi daily life remains to be seen. For now, Iraq remains a fragile post-conflict divided society.

Every schoolchild knows that civilisation originated in Mesopotamia, modern day Iraq. We know from our own island that the damage of the recent tragedies set off by Saddam Hussein and compounded by US adventurism will take some time to fix. Democracy is the only option. I was honoured to play my tiny role in working towards making that option more acceptable to the people of Iraq.

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