Lowered Expectations for Iraqi Expatriate Turnout

DUBAI – Democracy in Iraq is in the eye of the beholder. The elections on Jan. 30 may be touted as the first step toward freedom in the strife-torn country, but the chance to vote in their own government has evoked mixed emotions among Iraqi expatriates living in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

This mood was reflected in the poor turnout at the registration centers in the country, with around 12,600 signing up as voters from among the estimated 100,000 Iraqis living here. This lack of excitement – seen as a sign of apprehension, uncertainty, and even indifference – has, therefore, belied hopes of a massive response.

The UAE is one of the 14 countries where registration and polling centers have been set up for eligible Iraqis living abroad to be able to register and vote. Other countries include Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Iran, Jordan, the Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, Britain, and the United States.

Overall, only around 280,000 Iraqis have registered in the 74 centers set up in these 14 countries.

"What is the use of our voting?" asked Lubna Hashim, an Iraqi medical doctor based in Dubai, one of the seven emirates in the U.A.E. "We do not expect this to be free and fair elections. How can they be when we are still under U.S. occupation?" she added. "And I am sure the elected government will toe the line of the United States – that is not what we want for our country!"

Lamented Hashim: "We do want a stable government, but these elections will not yield such results."

The Iraqi doctor said she would forsake her vote for the next elections.

"We want to go back and rebuild our country, but this is not the right time," she added.

Voters living outside Iraq had till Jan. 25 to register their names for the election and can cast their actual ballot between Jan. 28 and 30.

The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is conducting the elections overseas, had in fact expected a million Iraqis expatriates to vote and initially planned to close registration on Jan. 23. The deadline was, however, extended by two days when the tally of registered voters had reached only about 130,000.

The IOM is no stranger to such a massive endeavor. It has conducted out-of-country voting in conflict-ridden areas such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and East Timor and prepared 850,000 Afghans in Pakistan and Iran to vote in their country’s presidential poll last October.

But Iraq has turned out differently.

"The turnout has been rather poor," said an official at the registration center in Dubai, one of the seven emirates in the UAE.

"There could be many reasons – but mainly expatriates here feel that the elections may not bring about the desired results," he said.

"They could also be feeling detached with what’s happening in Iraq because they have been away from their country for so long," added the official.

While Iraqi expatriates have been promised confidentiality in their registration, the official said many were still reluctant to come forward.

With Iraq’s insurgents, predominately Sunni Muslims, and their agents promising to sow violence on election day, the mere act of casting a ballot has become a life-threatening proposition. The Sunni Arab insurgents fear the expected gains in power by Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, numbering about 60 percent of the country’s 26 million population.

"Perhaps the past experiences of intimidation in Iraq are making them hesitant to participate in the [election] process," said the official.

Nicola Baldwin, a spokesperson for the IOM, told the press that the poor response didn’t amount to a "boycott," and that "voter apathy" and a "little bit of fear and trepidation" could have been the spoilers.

Iraqi expatriates can only vote for the 275-member National Assembly, while Iraqis at home can cast their ballots for assembly members as well as the Governorate Council in the governorate where they live and are registered to vote.

The recurring message that the IOM has tried to put across to Iraqis living abroad speaks a thousand words – "The future of Iraq has a voice: your vote." Newspaper advertisements, televisions spots, posters, leaflets, and toll free numbers were part of the public awareness campaign.

Nonetheless, there are many who share the apprehensions of Hashim, the medical doctor. They feel that the timing of the elections and the rising insurgency, with Iraqis bracing themselves for the worst case scenario, have created conditions that are not suitable for the polls.

There’s every indication that the Jan. 30 vote will lead to a fractured, and highly fractious, National Assembly, in which no single party will command a clear majority – thus making it difficult for the new government to deal with the militant Islamic insurgents and the United States, which is still occupying Iraq since the beginning of its invasion in March 2003.

"When we call our relatives, all of them say that they don’t feel safe enough to cast their votes. Most of us don’t even know who the 7,500 candidates are or what they stand for," said Rafa Ahmed, a homemaker living in Sharjah, another emirate.

But in the midst of fear, there is also optimism.

"Elections for the first time in 50 years!" exclaimed Barham Abbas, a salesman. "Of course I am excited and will exercise my right. This is the first time that I will have at least some say in the country’s governance."

Hamiz Hassan, a businessman in Sharjah, also shares Abbas excitement.

"The elections are the first ray of hope we see on the horizon for Iraq," he told IPS.