BAGHDAD, Iraq - When they vote today in Iraq's presidential referendum, residents of the middle-class neighborhoods along Palestine Street will come to the Tasmani Primary School. Saladin Fadhal, the person in charge of the polling place, will be ready for them.
He spent yesterday overseeing the final preparations, having commandeered the principal's office, where four portraits of President Saddam Hussein adorn the wall behind his desk.
As described by Fadhal, a Hussein pin on his shirt, the referendum is simplicity itself and an exercise in Iraqi democracy: Iraq's 11.5 million registered voters can check "yes" or "no" on a paper ballot asking whether Hussein should serve another seven-year term.
In the one previous presidential referendum, in 1995, 99.96 percent of the voters checked "yes."
That is democracy in action, the several men sitting in the principal's office agreed.
"Democracy is, people love our leader, Saddam Hussein," said Fadhal, a high school history teacher who sounded earnest and enthusiastic. "And they say `yes' to him."
"All our people love or like our leader," said Nabil Kamia, a bank clerk helping Fadhal set up the polling place. The referendum is important "to show our democracy, so all the world will see we are democratic."
Ahmed Abdul Latif, on loan for the preparations from the Ministry of Industry, reflected for a few moments longer on what the voting will mean. "We want to say, the people are free to express their way to choose the president," he said. "It is also a way to show our love of the president."
Considerable effort has gone into the campaign, as if the outcome could be in doubt. Thousands of election posters and banners - "Let Victory be for Iraq and Defeat for Its Enemy"; "Saddam Hussein is the Greatest Leader of the Greatest People" - are in store windows, on cars, on the walls of government ministries and at major intersections. The referendum and reports about the public's affection for the president dominate the news programs on state TV.
This is not a society where people are encouraged to dissent. And the referendum seems to demonstrate that every regime, no matter its character, wants to be able to claim to have its citizens' warm support, both to prove the regime's legitimacy to the rest of the world and to reassure itself that all controls remain in place and are working as they should.
Fadhal and his colleagues ranged in age from 30 to 59, old enough to have made a considered choice in being active supporters of Hussein. He has been their president since 1979, and his Baath Party has been the only political party since 1968. To be active in politics is to support Hussein without reservation.
Fadhal, the history teacher, rejected the suggestion that voting today might be more meaningful if there were a choice of candidates. "In our opinion, we like only Saddam Hussein," he said. "We will elect only Saddam."
He had given the subject thought and acknowledged that other countries handle elections differently. In the United States, candidates have to involve themselves in fund raising and depend on contributions from corporations and people, he said.
"Here, in our democracy, the government itself helps the candidates," he said. It's the government that gives candidates money for campaigns and provides the publicity - a system he viewed as a guarantee of perfect equity.
Everyone 18 or older has the right to vote, and voters in this precinct will walk past the principal's office, just inside the main entrance, and go into the school's courtyard, where desks were being arranged yesterday for the election judges and clerks.
The next steps are entirely ordinary as described by Fadhal.
One of the clerks checks the voter's name against a registration list. The voter signs the list and is handed a ballot. Men go into one classroom to mark the ballot, women into another. Fadhal suggested the referendum is too serious a matter for him to display a ballot a day in advance, though he said the choices would indeed be just "yes" and "no."
About 5,500 people are registered in the precinct. At least 4,500 are expected to come between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., most of the rest probably being ill or soldiers, he said.
Ballot marked, the voter will slip it into the slot of the ballot-box. Fadhal showed it off - a plywood box about 4 feet high, more than a foot deep and more than a foot wide, painted white, the long thin slot on top and a locked door at the rear for removing the ballots at the end of the day. Posters of Hussein are on the ballot box's front and sides.
It is serious business, this referendum. A lawyer and a poll committee will be present to certify the results. They will then seal and stamp an envelope reporting the official count.
The exact figures are impossible to predict because someone might mark a ballot "no," Fadhal said. The total number of "no's" - "Zero or one," he forecast. "Maybe."