Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 January - 2 February 2005
Issue No. 727
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The expatriate vote

Secular democracy in the shadow of occupation does not sit well with a deeply religious society. But can Iraqi voters abroad make a difference, asks Abbas Kadhim in San Fransisco

The vote of the Iraqis of the Diaspora, living mainly in Western countries, in the 30 January elections was assumed to provide pro-Western parties with some votes that could possibly counterbalance their weakness inside Iraq. Iraqis in Western countries, it was thought, would be the most likely eligible voters to register and, if they did vote, their support would help the pro-Western Iraqi political parties with the most secular agendas.

The truth of the matter is that politicians like Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi may have better chances with the electorate inside Iraq than among those Iraqis living abroad, most of whom remember vividly the dirty cock-fighting of politicians like Allawi across Europe and North America. Sadly, the same polluted atmosphere continues, but in Baghdad. Close observers can immediately see that today's thuggish and crude politics in Iraq are the exclusive property of those politicians incubated in Western capitals. Along with the terrorists and religious fanatics, these politicians are responsible for the continuation of the misery in Iraq and for providing the pretext to extend the duration of its occupation.

It is no wonder then that, by the last day of voter registration, Iran witnessed more registered voters than the US and Britain combined. An embarrassing figure of one in nine expatriate Iraqis registering for voting -- in countries where there are no car bombs or Zarqawi ghosts -- is a sign of apathy. And this among the Iraqis most familiar with the practice of democracy -- those who understand well the importance of elections but also value their votes and feel the danger in casting a vote to a cluster of nameless and faceless candidates.

Democracy ought to be a transparent process. But Iraq is turning gradually to the politics of secrecy and the economics of cash transactions. The new Iraq is a state of veiled police, veiled politicians and veiled citizens. The only visible faces are those of terrorists and the faces of con artists in and out of the ranks of government. This is hardly going to inspire Iraqis to take the pilgrimage from their homes to remote registration centres. Instead of extending the registration period to accommodate the larger numbers inside Iraq, the extension was made to beg a few more eligible voters living abroad to minimise the size of another debacle.

There are reasons for the low turnout during the registration phase, which is going to be even lower on the day of elections, as many registered voters would probably not make it to the polls. The first reason is the design of the registration process. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), which is monitoring the Iraqi vote abroad, was given the contract very late. Therefore, less than a month was available to prepare for the registration of communities stretching out across seven continents.

The second reason concerns the registration process itself. Eligible voters were required to show up to register and then return one more time to vote. In countries like the US and Australia, this would have many voters travel thousands of miles, twice, to participate. Here, in the San Francisco Bay area, Iraqis would have to go to Los Angeles, the nearest registration centre. As it happened, a group of Iraqi men made it to LA, but not their wives -- who had to stay with the children back home. Why, one wonders, were people not allowed same-day registration or registration by mail -- similar to voter registration in US elections?

The third reason for the low level of enthusiasm among the Iraqis of the Diaspora is the lack of inspiring candidates. This is especially true in the case of voters living in the West, in sharp contrast to the impressive registration reported in Iran. The overriding factor for these would-be voters in Iran is not particularly the candidates of the Unified Iraqi Alliance, but the fact that this list enjoys the support of Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who almost made it mandatory for Iraqis to vote. In other words, the numbers in Iran are mobilised by religious allegiance rather than political loyalty.

At the end of the day, the vote of Iraqis in exile is not going to change the outcome of the elections or even influence it in any significant way. Especially so, since the vast majority of the voters abroad is expected to follow the same voting pattern of their compatriots inside Iraq. There is however a symbolic significance for the effort of luring in the secular exile vote. Secular democracy at the threat of smart bombs does not sit well with a deeply religious society.

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