UK’s Iraqis disillusioned by political process ahead of vote

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London, UK – Just days before polls open, Iraq’s parliamentary election has failed to stir enthusiasm among the thousands of UK-based Iraqis, with many saying they are planning to abstain from voting.

Diaspora voting in Britain will begin on May 10 and end on May 11 – a day before ballots are cast in Iraq – in polling stations across London, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Glasgow and Cardiff.

Four major electoral alliances and nearly 7,200 candidates hope to secure a seat in the 329-strong parliament in Iraq’s capital, Baghdad.

In the lead-up to the vote, candidates’ campaigns focused on reforms to Iraq’s 15 year-old, sectarian-powered political system and promises to tackle corruption.

According to Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), overseas voter turnout has sharply declined over the years – from 43,000 in 2010 to 18,000 four years later – and many expect disillusionment to persist this year too.

Mohanned Rahman, an Oxford-based affiliate of the diaspora branch of Iraq’s Sunni Islamic Party, Dar al Salam, says he plans to vote, even though he is wary whether genuine democracy can take root beneath the prevailing circumstances in Iraq.

“Some will vote but without enthusiasm, owing to the discrimination practiced still against the [Sunni] community,” Rahman, 39, told Al Jazeera by telephone.

Sunni communities in Iraq had called for Baghdad to postpone the elections, saying it was logistically impossible to run polling stations in northwestern areas previously held by ISIL. At the same time, millions remain scattered in camps for internally displaced people and unable to participate in the vote.

“People in the diaspora are interested in the wellbeing of their families,” she Rahman, who went last year to distribute aid in Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city which the Iraqi army recaptured from ISIL in 2017.

“Those from liberated cities are unable to vote. Therefore the elections for the diaspora are meaningless. When I was in Mosul, there was graffiti and flags in areas – that’s not going to win hearts and minds. Within the Sunni community, even outside of Iraq, there is a feeling that we are the losers. The new Iraq is seen by some as the enemy.”

Yet, despite a prevailing sense of deflation, Rahman says he does not consider UK-based Iraqi Sunnis casting their vote as an endorsement of Baghdad’s political process.

Boycotting election

In 2004, a year after the US invasion, the return of Iraqi sovereignty culminated in the birth of a nascent state and a political system premised on sectarian quotas. A new political process was formed, led by Shia Islamist and Kurdish political parties, as well as Iraq’s Sunni Islamic Party (IP).

While these labels suggest that IP representatives in government represent “Sunni interests”, large parts of their community have accused them of collaborating with the US and placing their own interests before the collective good of their Sunni constituents.

In the UK-based diaspora, a feeling of resentment against Baghdad for what Rahman described as “window dressing Sunni figures” has resulted in many saying that they will boycott the election.

One of them is Ahmad Mahmoud, a senior analyst at the Foreign Relations Bureau of Iraq (FRB-I), a London-based opposition group.

Describing the election as a “US-designed, Iran-managed political process”, he cited issues such as “legitimacy, accountability and wrongdoing” as the reasons behind his disinterest in partaking in the vote.

“Shias will have the highest turnout and the Islamic Party (IP) will come second,” said Mahmoud.

While cautioning against attempts to lump Sunnis together, he noted: “Given their reservations and growing conviction that the new Iraq has failed, the Sunni turnout will be expectedly low.”

For her part, Haifa Zangana, a novelist and political activist, gave two reasons for why she is not voting.

“Most candidates and alliances have been part and parcel of Iraq’s occupation, responsible for the ensuing disasters and bloodshed,” said Zangana.

“Secondly, candidates are corrupt. The claim that they’ll work to ‘clean’ corruption is bizarre since it involves their ejection and that’s not going to happen.”

There has been a steady decline in turnout overseas, down from 43,000 in 2010 to 18,000 in 2014, according to Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) [AFP].

‘Participation is needed’

Still, other members of the Iraqi community in the UK said they felt obliged to vote.

Maha Ridha, managing director of the Khoei Foundation, a charitable and educational foundation associated with Shia leadership in Iraq, is one of them.

“Some people are reluctant; others dismiss the elections due to corruption, [but] participation is needed,” she told Al Jazeera.

“[It’s] no good sitting on the fence and saying Sha’laya [not my concern],” she added.

Separately, a London-based 26-year-old British Iraqi, who did not wish to give his full name, said he was hopeful that the Communist Party – of which he is a member – would be able to capture more seats than the three they won in 2014 after forming an alliance with the Sadrist Movement in the Sairoon [Marchers] Coalition led by Muqtada al-Sadr.

Unable to vote 

Though exact figures are hard to come by, the Iraqi diaspora in the UK is estimated to number about 400,000 people.

Prior to the vote, election outreach was limited to a handful of London-grown, Iraq-focused charities and organisations which liaise with governmental bodies.

In contrast to boycotters, groups such as the Iraqi Association (IA) and Iraqi Welfare Association (IWA) believe in educating the wider diaspora constituency and extending suffrage to as many as possible.

Their coordinating efforts were set in motion last year after IWA chased down relevant information concerning voter registration from Baghdad.

Rayya Ali, office manager at IA, is one of the second-generation Iraqis below the age of 30 who wish to vote but may not be able to.

A person is eligible to cast their ballot if they are able to produce two official documents, either before or on the day of voting.

One of them must authenticate the voter’s Iraqi nationality – or of their parents, for UK-born Iraqis – and the other must display the Iraqi governorate the voter originates from.

An online voter registration system was taken down months after it went live due to a series of technical problems.

Ali said that while the IHEC recognises British passports that list Iraq as the country of birth, “they apparently won’t accept a birth certificate”, adding that she was told that one of two documents must be Iraqi.

“I do not currently have the required documents to make me eligible, unless I can get something proving I am Iraqi before the polling days. This is the situation despite having voted in 2010. The rules have since been changed.”

Hopeful, but concerned

At his northwest London office, IWA Director Imad al-Abadi recognises the fading appeal of out-of-country voting but describes it as the only democratic avenue in absence of alternatives.

Surrounded by Iraqi paraphernalia, al-Abadi, who arrived to the UK in the mid-1970s, stressed the need for “new faces” in Iraqi politics.

Existing politicians, he argued, “are expired”.

“We want to show that Iraqis are part of the process in strength and influence,” he said praising the UK’s highly-skilled Iraqi diaspora.

Both the IA and IWA expressed concerns over the role of IHEC, which replaced the former election commission in 2007.

The IHEC’s nine-member council is appointed directly by a special parliamentary committee staffed by members tied to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Dawa Party.

The body’s mandate is to manage the electoral process, but it also has the power to disqualify candidates and contest results if fraud is suspected.

The IA and IWA lamented the IHEC for what they said was delayed planning, inability to simplify complex procedures and lack of outreach.

But the director of IHEC’s operations in London – who did not wish to be named – expressed little sympathy for estranged Iraqis who live outside community structures, or are even unable to retrieve correct documentation.

“If someone cares about the elections, you would think that 15 years would have been enough to obtain the correct documents,” a member from London’s IHEC team told Al Jazeera.

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