As Iraq gears up for Sunday's election, a major litmus test in the country's nascent democracy, many Iraqi expatriates here are disillusioned with the process. But a fair number headed to the polls anyway during a three-day voting window that began Friday.
“I do not know if I will ever be able to go back, but I am interested in the future of my country,” said Fadwa Saidiya, a refugee from Baghdad who says she voted for current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki.
Indeed, polling stations in Damascus reported good turnout today, the first day for expatriates in 16 countries outside Iraq to cast their ballots. Because Syria is home to the largest population of Iraqis outside Iraq, candidates have focused their attention here. The Sunni minority in Iraq is especially interested in out-of-country voting, believing that many of those who fled to Syria are Sunni and will act as a counterweight to votes cast for Shiite parties.
In the suburb of Jaramana, voters say they are rooting for the secular Iraqiya movement, seen as the best of a bad bunch.
“Iraq has been torn apart by religious and ethnic tensions,” says Ahmad, a former security guard from Baghdad. “We need a change of government and I think this is our best option.”
Turnout better than expected
No official figures for Friday's turnout are yet available, but election observers say a substantial number of voters showed up.
“We opened at 8 a.m. and so far [mid-afternoon], I have been surprised by how many people have come,” said Nassar Hemood, an observer from the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) stationed in Saida Zeinab, a suburb of Damascus with a high Iraqi population.
But despite the positive signs, many Iraqi refugees in Syria said they had no plans to vote – even those aiming to return to Iraq if the security situation improves.
“Firstly, Iraq is controlled by Iran, not the voters,” said Haidar, an engineer from Baghdad. He is not voting and did not want to give his last name. “Secondly, I would rather vote for a politician who said he would steal $1 million from the people rather than any of the others who pledge to serve the people and then embezzle $8 million.”
Baghdad trying to diminish Iraqi voices outside Iraq?
Allegations of corrupt candidates and corrupt election procedures are widespread among the Iraqi expatriate community in Syria as in Iraq – particularly among young people. The feeling that their votes would not count was compounded last month when a dispute erupted between the Syrian and Iraqi governments as to the number of refugees present in Syria.
Iraq counted 206,000 – roughly the same number of Iraqi refugees registered with the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR. But the Syrian government puts the real figure at 1.2 million or more – an estimate routinely quoted by the UN and other aid agencies, but questioned by some independent observers. Iraqi refugees here read Iraq's low tally as a sign that Baghdad was trying to diminish the importance of Iraqi voices outside the country.
The IHEC says the election procedure has been structured to encourage a large number of voters. Twenty-three polling stations are open across Syria and any Iraqi who turns up with two forms of identification is allowed to vote.