Iraq touts Hussein's 'election' as reform But many Iraqis predict and fear a tighter clampdown

October 16, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi officials claim yesterday's "election" of Saddam Hussein to a seven-year term as president is the first step toward democracy, but many of his own people worry that it will strengthen the ruler's ability to clamp down even tighter.

Mr. Hussein, the only candidate in a "yes" or "no" referendum, was expected to claim a nearly 100 percent victory. In early results this morning, the government announced that Mr. Hussein had swept three of the country's 15 districts, winning every vote in one of them and 99 percent in the other two.

Throughout yesterday, Iraqis streamed to the polls and dutifully filled out their ballots, most of them checking the "yes" box openly in front of election officials.

Officials said the election would lead to other democratic reforms within two years, including setting up an elected parliament and allowing opposition parties to operate.

Mr. Hussein made similar promises to move toward democratization after his 1991 defeat in the Persian Gulf war. Those promises were not kept, and Iraq remains one of the world's most repressive dictatorships.

Some worry that the regime's iron grip on the Iraqi people, which has loosened slightly in recent years, will tighten again after the referendum.

"It's only going to get worse," said an Iraqi office worker, on condition of anonymity. "Now Saddam will feel more confident."

There are signs that some already are more frightened of the government's widespread informant system. One steady acquaintance of five years refused to meet a reporter. "I don't want trouble. It's too dangerous," he explained.

The referendum is seen as a show of strength by Mr. Hussein in answer to speculation that his hold on power has been weakened by unrest in the army and defections in his family. Those rumors temporarily encouraged the repressed Iraqis, who now feel more dispirited, one college student said.

"There is no hope anymore. The future for many people is to live to today and tomorrow, that's all."

Yusef Hamadi, the minister of information, last week hailed the "first referendum in the history of Iraq" as a long-delayed step toward democratization.

The regime had wanted since 1979, when Mr. Hussein took power, to begin the process of becoming more democratic, he said. The plan was delayed by the eight-year war with Iran, the gulf war that followed Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, and by the virtual autonomy of Kurdish areas in the north.

In "another year or two," he said, Iraq will ban the ruling Revolutionary Command Council, set up a two-house parliament including an elected 250-seat lower National Assembly and a 50-seat upper house -- and legalize opposition parties.

"It will not be a liberal democracy, that's for sure," Mr. Hamadi acknowledged. He said Iraq is not ready for American-style democracy. "Don't make other countries live up to your standards. Your standards are not applicable everywhere."

Throughout much of the reign of Mr. Hussein's Baath party, which seized power in 1968, Iraq has been a fearful place brimming with informants. Minor grumbles could lead to imprisonment and torture, and those who voiced more serious criticisms of the government often disappeared.

But gradually since the gulf war, that oppression has relaxed slightly. Although no one dared to be quoted by name, Iraqis have felt freer to talk to foreigners and express their frustrations.

The regime has been less diligent about policing such gripes, possibly because it has been more confident of its power, or because it has felt such complaints serve as a relief valve to public dissatisfaction, or because there simply have been too many people complaining.

Now, some predict the lid on criticism will close again.

"People forget everything. What shall they do? Can they speak? Anyone who does is killed," said Ali, a retired shop owner.

The exercise of democracy in Iraq yesterday was hardly a model of free choice. The balloting of nearly 7 million Iraqis took on the atmosphere of a pep rally. Schoolgirls chanted, "Yes, yes to Saddam" as voters entered the polls under a myriad of posters and portraits of Mr. Hussein.

The only suspense was whether the ruling party would follow the etiquette of most totalitarian regimes and announce a minuscule percentage of opposition, or whether Mr. Hussein would proclaim 100 percent support in this country of 20 million people.

"This election is run with an iron fist," grumbled one man heading for a polling station. He claimed that he would vote no. Asked why, he suddenly became nervous and turned quickly away.

At the Caliph Farouk school on the outskirts of Baghdad, as at many other polling stations, voters obtained their ballots and nonchalantly marked them "yes" on the table in front of a poll official. Anyone who wanted privacy to mark his or her ballot had to search hard for a room far down a corridor and squeeze into four elementary school-sized desks. Few bothered.

"People know how they have to vote," shrugged one man.

Some did not bother to come. They sent their identification cards with relatives, who filled out ballots for the whole family and stuffed them into a 4-foot box surrounded by 17 portraits of Saddam Hussein.

Asked about the lack of secrecy, elections judge Ahmed Kubeisi, 48, said: "We can't stop people from marking their ballots openly."

But he said confidentiality would be retained: "We will count the ballots in secret."

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