Iraq gives in to demands to allow its expats to vote

Posted in Iraq | 05-Nov-04 | Author: Edward Wong| Source: International Herald Tribune

An Iraqi man looks over a poster promoting the upcoming Iraqi election.
BAGHDAD Facing enormous pressure from major political groups here, Iraqi electoral officials said Thursday that they would allow millions of Iraqis outside the country to vote in the coming elections, despite serious warnings from the United Nations and American officials that such polling is extremely tough and could wreck the elections.

A supervisor for the Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission, charged with organizing the elections, said in an interview that Iraqis in countries with significant expatriate populations would be able to vote in Iraq's first democratic elections, scheduled for January.

"We've decided to allow Iraqis abroad to vote, and the mechanism will be worked out in the coming days," said Adel al-Lami, the electoral official. "The voting will take place in those countries with a large number of Iraqis."

The decision resolved the most heated and intractable debate of the planning process but will lead to more passionate and highly political clashes, UN officials said.

The commission will now have to determine where to allow expatriate voting to take place, how to carry out the difficult task and where to get the budget to do so.

Expatriate voting also opens up the election to greater potential for irregularities and easy charges of fraud, since it will be harder to monitor the polling abroad.

"It's very difficult to account for what takes place outside," said Carlos Valenzuela, head of the UN electoral advisory team in Iraq. "We've told them from point one that it's a very risky business. They face enormous pressure right now from every political entity."

With an estimated two million to four million Iraqis living abroad, about half of whom are eligible to vote, expatriate votes could account for up to 15 percent of the total, making a huge difference in the January outcome. Many Iraqis abroad fled their homeland during the 35-year rule of the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein. Some of the largest populations are believed to be in Britain, the United States and Iran.

The Shiite parties were at the forefront of the intense lobbying effort, since a disproportionate number of expatriate Iraqis are believed to be Shiites and would presumably vote along those lines. Leaders of the Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population in Iraq, are making every effort to ensure they seize as much power as possible during the elections, after hundreds of years of minority Sunni rule in the region.

Even Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, who is supposed to adhere to a doctrine of noninterference in politics, issued strong statements saying expatriate Iraqis must be allowed to vote.

The main Kurdish parties and former exile groups, including the party of the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, also pushed to allow the expatriate votes, because they would likely benefit from such polling.

"The Shia might withdraw completely," said Adnan Ali, a deputy in the Dawa Islamic Party, one of the country's two most powerful Shiite parties. "That's a serious threat. We said, 'If you don't include those votes, you're pushing us to the red line."'