Global Policy Forum

Iraqi Officials to Allow Vote by Expatriates


By Edward Wong

New York Times
November 5, 2004

Iraqi electoral officials said Thursday they would allow millions of Iraqis outside the country to vote in the coming election. The decision, made after weeks of anguished debate, appeared certain to increase tensions among the minority Sunni Arabs here, because most Iraqi expatriates are believed to be Shiites.

"We've decided to allow Iraqis abroad to vote, and the mechanism will be worked out in the coming days," said Adel al-Lami, a supervisor for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, charged with organizing the country's first democratic elections, scheduled for January. "The voting will take place in those countries with a large number of Iraqis." Those 18 and older will be eligible, he added.

The United Nations and the United States had recommended strongly against allowing expatriate voting because such polling is notoriously difficult to organize and because the process is more prone to irregularities and charges of fraud. Such problems arising could threaten the legitimacy of the election, United Nations and American officials said.

But leading Shiite and Kurdish politicians, as well as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, strongly supported expatriate voting. Carlos Valenzuela, the leader of the United Nations electoral advisory team, said the dangers had been made clear to them. "We've told them from point one that it's a very risky business,'' he said. "People don't realize the potential implications of this. They're huge - practical, logistical, political. And all this has to be done in the time frame allotted."

The commission must still determine the procedure for expatriate voting, as well as where it will be allowed, which is a politically charged issue. It must also secure a relatively large budget for the polling. Many Iraqis fled in the 35-year rule of the Sunni-dominated Baath Party and Saddam Hussein. Two million to four million are now living abroad - about half of them over 18 - with some of the biggest concentrations in Britain, the United States and Iran. Those voters could account for up to 15 percent of the total in January, when Iraqis are to elect a 275-member national assembly.

The assembly will then install an executive government and draft a permanent constitution. Direct elections for a full-term government are planned for the end of 2005. The big Shiite political parties lobbied hardest to allow expatriate voting, with Ayatollah Sistani issuing strong statements of support for the idea in recent weeks. After hundreds of years of minority rule by Sunnis in the region, leaders of the Shiites, who make up 60 percent of Iraq's population, are jockeying for maximum advantage in the elections.

The main Kurdish parties and some leading former exiles, including the interim prime minister, Ayad Allawi, also supported expatriate voting. They have distinct constituencies abroad and are more secular than most Iraqi parties, which could allow them to appeal to expatriate voters across ethnic and religious lines. The challenges involved in setting up polling outside Iraq will be formidable and, by some accounts, overwhelming. The United Nations strongly advised the Iraqi electoral commission over the summer, during training in Mexico City, that out-of-country voting should not be permitted, Mr. Valenzuela said. The United Nations even flew in experts at the time to comment.

The decision of where to allow voting will almost certainly be seen as highly political, and there will probably be accusations of discrimination in many cases, Mr. Valenzuela said. For example, although many Iraqis live in Shiite-dominated Iran, the idea of allowing expatriates there to vote is likely to draw sharp criticism from many corners, particularly Sunni Arabs, who lost their power with the fall of Mr. Hussein. American officials say one of the goals of holding elections is to dampen the Sunni-led insurgency by getting Sunnis to take part in the process of creating a government.

Many Iraqis also hold a strong distrust of the Iranian government because of the bloody eight-year war Iraq fought with Iran in the 1980's, a sentiment that will no doubt cast a shadow on votes from Iran. But powerful Shiite parties like the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq will almost certainly lobby for the inclusion of expatriate votes from Iran. That group was founded in 1982 by an Iraqi ayatollah who had fled to Iran.

Financing the vote and organizing a system for the voting present serious logistical problems. Mr. Valenzuela said out-of-country polling costs considerably more per voter than in-country polling. A Western diplomat, who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity, estimated that organizing expatriate voting would cost "millions and millions" of dollars and said that American officials here had relayed their disapproval to the United Nations.

Mr. Lami acknowledged that the commission did not have financing yet for the outside polling. He said the 40 or so Iraqi Embassies now open could help organize voter registration and polling, and the United Nations could help in countries without embassies. Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister and a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which supported expatriate voting, said in an interview he was ready to throw all the resources of Iraq's embassies into the effort. "I lived many years abroad, and I believe it's critical," he said.

But Mr. Valenzuela and the Western diplomat said the embassies were underequipped. Besides, they argued, it would be politically suspect to use the resources of the interim Iraqi government. The United Nations also has no mandate to help conduct expatriate polling, Mr. Valenzuela said. Out-of-country voting has taken place in elections in nations like Afghanistan and East Timor. But in those cases, the outside polling was limited to only a few countries because, unlike Iraqi, expatriates were clustered more tightly. Expatriate polling took place in Pakistan and Iran during the recent Afghan elections, and in a mere half-dozen countries, including Portugal and Indonesia, in the case of East Timor.

Mr. Valenzuela said the Iraqi commission might outsource the job of setting up outside polling to a group like the International Organization for Migration, which has ties to the United Nations. In recent weeks, the two biggest Shiite parties here, the Dawa Islamic Party and the Supreme Council, both in exile during Mr. Hussein's rule, made intense pleas to the electoral panel to allow expatriate votes. Adnan Ali, a deputy in the Dawa Party, said in an interview that Shiite officials had threatened a boycott of the elections. "The Shia might withdraw completely," he said. "That's a serious threat. We said, 'If you don't include those votes, you're pushing us to the red line.' "

It was unclear what role such threats played in the commission's decision. Not participating would cost Shiites dearly, since they would lose the chance to take power through legitimate means. Though outspoken on the issue of expatriate votes, Ayatollah Sistani has insisted that his top priority is to make sure the elections take place on time.

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