Iraqi officials claim Sunday’s “election” of Saddam Hussein to a 7-year term as president is the first step toward democracy, but many of his own people worry it will strengthen the ruler to clamp down even tighter.
Hussein, the only candidate in a “yes” or “no” referendum, was expected to claim a victory of nearly 100 percent by early Monday.
Throughout Sunday, Iraqis streamed to the polls and dutifully filled out their ballots, most of them checking the “yes” box openly in front of the 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.
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 the regime’s iron grip on his people, which has loosened slightly in recent years, now will tighten again after the referendum.
“It’s only going to get worse,” said a Iraqi office worker, anonymously. “Now Saddam will feel more confident.”
There are signs 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 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 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 Hussein took power, to begin the process of becoming more democratic, he said. But they were 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.