No one doubts the extreme importance of Iraq’s first parliamentary election tomorrow. And from most accounts today — which suggest that Sunnis are going to participate in the process in record numbers, something they did not do in the election for an interim government last January — there is reason to be optimistic. Come Friday morning, we could have another moment of purple finger triumphalism on our hands.


But before we get too breathless, as many journalists did during and immediately after that election last January, it might be a good time to stop and consider the kaleidoscope that we call Iraq, within which this election is taking place — not to diminish the significance of what will surely be a milestone, but to bring a bit of realism to it.


Fortunately, in recent days, this is exactly what a few newspapers have been doing.


For starters, the Christian Science Monitor had a good piece on the role TV political advertisements are playing. With the streets too violent to wade into for shaking hands and kissing babies, candidates are taking to television to make their case. But with even one second of airtime costing $10, only the richest parties can afford them (Ahmed Chalabi’s slate, for example, runs about 10 ads every day, according to the article). Poorer candidates have absolutely no way of reaching the people and getting their message across. (Hey, wait! This system sounds vaguely familiar…)


A few papers have run stories, as the the Washington Post did, about the strong voting power of Shiite religious leaders and the influence they wield over their millions of followers. Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq’s main Shiite cleric, has, according to the Post “instructed Iraqis to vote for a strong slate and for candidates who are God-fearing.” The only slate that could possibly fulfill those requirements is the main Shiite one, 555.


With this message passed down to local village sheiks to enforce, it makes it hard to imagine that this election will go against the status quo established in last January’s vote, in which the religious Shiite party grabbed a great deal of political power. (This, in spite of the fact that many Shiite Iraqis admit to not actually liking the way the government is being run.)


In Basra, a Shiite stronghold, it appears from a New York Times article today that any party that is not part of the dominant Shiite slate is scared to even put a poster up outside, let alone rally or campaign. They are “cowering inside their offices” the Times reports. It continues, “Some secular or Sunni Arab candidates here have been shot, their campaign headquarters have been attacked, and their posters rarely survive more than a few hours.”


A related — and even more ominous — problem is the influence of Iran on the election. It’s an issue that, in our estimation, has not been reported on enough. Maybe that’s why it came as a surprise this morning to read that “Iraqi border police seized a tanker on Tuesday that had just crossed from Iran filled with thousands of forged ballots.” A tanker? And apparently there were at least three more trucks entering from Iran at unknown locations. If Iran is indeed sending in truckloads of forged ballots, this could mean a Shiite landslide of even greater proportions than the one last January. Even scarier, down the road, we could see some sort of Shiite-dominated Iran-Iraq alliance. It’s every neocon’s nightmare, a two-country Islamic theocracy allied against, among other things, the United States — not a great outcome, as Robert Kaiser pointed out in an online chat today at Washingtonpost.com.


These issues, constraining and distorting the purity of the vote, need to be illuminated. In a beautiful piece earlier this week by the inimitable Anthony Shadid, the Washington Post reporter took a bus ride through Baghdad and listened in on the concerns and conflicting allegiances and feelings of a range of Iraqis.


He captured all the different elements swirling around in their minds as they approach the ballot box — the fear of fundamentalist Shiite dominance, the desire to see the American occupation end, the fatigue of living in an insecure society.


In the end, the clearest voice is that of Mohammed Fattah, an unemployed Shiite, who says, “I’m too young for this. We haven’t seen anything else, just tragedies. You go here and you see bombings, you go there and you see killings. We need a year of quiet just to settle our minds.”

Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.