Elections in countries that have been strangers to democracy are never pretty, as Afghanistan's recent vote demonstrated and as any election in Iraq is likely to be. But electoral flaws are not always the whole picture.
Consider Kazakhstan, where five million people cast ballots in September for their parliament's lower house. Western media judged the election a failure. CNN reported it "neither equitable nor free." The Economist snidely referred to the "results" in quotation marks. Most quoted the OSCE's finding that the elections were riddled with "serious shortcomings."
Those elections were flawed. But only a small percent of the breaches were the result of deliberate manipulation. We were there, and visited eight urban and rural polling places, talked with roughly a hundred voters, election officials and observers, as well as officials from six parties. The majority of shortcomings resulted from organizational ineptitude.
The worst cases of outright manipulation occurred when local bureaucrats - all appointed from above - pressured voters to support President Nursultan Nazarbayev's Otan Party. This problem will doubtless persist until more local officials are chosen through elections.