United States officials were surprised and heartened today at the size of turnout in South Vietnam’s presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.

According to reports from Saigon, 83 per cent of the 5.85 million registered voters cast their ballots yesterday. Many of them risked reprisals threatened by the Vietcong.

The size of the popular vote and the inability of the Vietcong to destroy the election machinery were the two salient facts in a preliminary assessment of the nation election based on the incomplete returns reaching here.

Pending more detailed reports, neither the State Department nor the White House would comment on the balloting or the victory of the military candidates, Lieut. Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu, who was running for president, and Premier Nguyen Cao Ky, the candidate for vice president.

A successful election has long been seen as the keystone in President Johnson’s policy of encouraging the growth of constitutional processes in South Vietnam. The election was the culmination of a constitutional development that began in January, 1966, to which President Johnson gave his personal commitment when he met Premier Ky and General Thieu, the chief of state, in Honolulu in February.

The purpose of the voting was to give legitimacy to the Saigon Government, which has been founded only on coups and power plays since November, 1963, when President Ngo Dinh Deim was overthrown by a military junta.

Few members of that junta are still around, most having been ousted or exiled in subsequent shifts of power.

The fact that the backing of the electorate has gone to the generals who have been ruling South Vietnam for the last two years does not, in the Administration’s view, diminish the significance of the constitutional step that has been taken. ~The New York Times, September 4, 1967

After reportedly relatively high turnout in the January 30 Iraqi elections (approx. 60%), the administration was able to claim what even most critics granted was something of a success. Of course, given the administration’s record for enjoying ‘catastrophic success’, as they call it, I am not at all sure that the relatively peaceful election day (only around 35 dead) and large turnout bode any better for Iraq’s future and our future in Iraq than the supposedly quick victory over the Iraqi military did two years ago.

It must say something that most observers regarded as successful an election day in which only around 35 people are killed by insurgents–the expectations for mass carnage were so great and widespread that when these were not realised it was chalked up to a good day. It should also tell us something that nearly 40% of eligible Iraqis chose, for any number of reasons, not to vote. In an established, stable and normal Western democracy, 60% is even regarded as high turnout, and perhaps we could give the Iraqis a break, as many are living in a war zone (of course, most of those in the main war zone did not vote), but a mere 60% turnout in a country that is offering some political say to the general population for the first time seems to me to be a bit underwhelming.

For whatever it is worth (and it is not much), the Afghan elections saw rather higher turnout (66% according to one source) in a country with infrastructure and education that are quite inferior to those of Iraq. One might attribute the difference in turnout to the insurgency, in which case it has demonstrated that it is having a noticeable political impact beyond the secondary measure of whether or not ‘most’ voters have repudiated the insurgency (extremists are, by definition, not representative and are not interested in popularity as such).

Even if we assume that almost all Sunnis stayed away, that still leaves millions of Iraqis, most of whom probably live outside of the main killing areas, who had no compelling interest in participating. For a budding representative government, to have 40% even indifferent or hostile to participation will be fatal to that government.