BAGHDAD – More than six months ago, millions of Iraqis cast aside fears about bombs and bullets to vote. In households without a reliable supply of water, the indelible purple ink on the voters’ index fingers did not wear off for more than a week.
The voters have since watched winter turn to spring, and now summer become fall – and the people they elected still have no leader. They are waiting on their parties to come to an agreement so they can start work.
And while the summer months were marked by a surge in violence and by riots over the lack of electricity, drinking water and other basic services, in Baghdad, members of Parliament have lived out a workers’ fantasy: a vacation of more than 200 days (and counting), with full pay and benefits, free to do their heart’s desire.
Since the March 7 election, they have met just once, and that was for less than 19 minutes.
In the interim, some have sought out less chaotic places with better weather and less bloodshed, staying in nice hotels or private homes with chlorinated swimming pools in Jordan, Syria, Iran or Dubai.
A few have sat home and stewed.
Others have reconnected with family, undergone medical procedures in countries with better-equipped hospitals, or gone to weddings and funerals they would otherwise have missed.
More than a dozen members interviewed say they have been assiduously following news on television and in the papers on sporadic talks between parties to form a coalition government. There has been much news, they agree, but little progress.
The energy and optimism with which these would-be reformers rode into Baghdad after the March 7 election has all but vanished. It has been replaced by feelings of embarrassment, frustration and anger.
"I’m representing the Iraqi people, but it doesn’t feel like it," said Kadhim Jwad, a Sadrist elected to represent Babil province in the country’s south. "I’m at the boiling point. I’m tired and annoyed all the time. There’s lots of pressure on me. This is more than I can take."
Ayad Samarrai, the speaker of Iraq’s last functioning Parliament – a body whose trademark lassitude led the public to vote a good many of them out of office in March (though Samarrai was re-elected) – said feelings of melancholy were not uncommon among his colleagues.
"Not having a session has created a state of psychological emptiness," among those elected, he said. "They feel useless. They were ready to participate. They were ambitious, ready to make change. And of course, that motivation has now been stopped entirely."
A salve for their ennui, however, has been their compensation: salaries of about $11,050 a month each, which include a housing allowance; a fleet of three brand-new armored sport utility vehicles and a 30-member security detail for their use; freshly issued diplomatic passports, which allow for worry-free international travel; and government payments into pension plans that will yield 80 percent of their salaries.
A bank was recently set up inside the Parliament building so that checks can be cashed without fuss.
In the meantime, one in four Iraqis are estimated to live below the poverty line. Leila Hassan, a newly elected member, said, "I get embarrassed when people ask me, ‘What’s going on?’ and when I go out, I feel shy because I’m worried people will blame me."
Hassan, from the Kurdish Alliance party, said she had tried to stay engaged, but now often gives in to an all-enveloping boredom.
"In my spare time, well, I’m not married and my mother takes care of me," the 30-year-old said. "She cooks and cleans the house, so I have nothing to do. I have spent a lot of time reading books."
Hassan said she had also taken courses on democracy with other women elected to Parliament, which has taken them to the United States and Lebanon.
"We have agreed to serve as a lobby on women’s issues inside Parliament," she said. "We expected that we would meet each other during a session, so it’s funny it happened outside Iraq."
Mahmoud Othman, also a member of the Kurdish Alliance, said he had been fighting the doldrums by showing up at Parliament in spite of himself. He has found himself feeling even more isolated.
"I keep coming to the building, but I am all alone," he said. "I find no one. Sometimes, there are journalists so I do an interview with them, and sometimes I see friends here, but nothing very useful."
He said he had spent all but one month of the break in Baghdad, a city he says compares poorly to Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
"Baghdad? What’s there in Baghdad?" he said. "There’s nothing to do in Baghdad. I’m sitting at home most of the time with my wife, chatting, bonding. This has been a great opportunity for me to spend more time with her."
Fatah al-Ashikh, a member of the Iraqiya political slate, who represents Baghdad, said the hiatus had given him the chance to work on his doctorate in media studies.
"I am using this useless time to do something that will help me in the future," he said.
He has also broken in his new official passport.
"During Ramadan, I went to Syria and spent most of the month there," he said. "I was running from the heat of Iraq and all the electrical blackouts."
Al-Ashikh also organized a rally protesting a Florida pastor’s threat earlier this month to burn copies of the Quran, and said he had visited the sites of recent bombings around the country – of which there has been no shortage since the election.
"I’ve been able to attend many events," he said, "including a lot of funerals for army officers who have been killed by terrorists."
Unadim Kana, an independent who represents Christians in Nineveh province in Iraq’s north, said he too had been "able to travel freely," but said he would be happy to dispense with that new freedom if he were allowed to work.
"We have lost seven months of possibility," he said.