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Last Updated: Friday, 21 January 2005, 14:46 GMT
Low turnout for Iraq expat vote
By Penny Spiller
BBC News

Worker arranges ballot boxes at a warehouse at Baghdad's International Airport
The ballot papers arrive in Baghdad, but will people vote?
The number of Iraqis voting abroad was predicted to be high, but with just three days to go before registration ends, turnout is surprisingly low.

The International Organisation for Migration's out-of-country vote programme has ensured it can cater for more than one million expatriate Iraqis.

But as of Wednesday evening, only 67,760 people had registered to vote in centres set up in 14 countries.

So who is voting, why are many not and will it have any impact back home?

Iraqi doctor Sabuh al-Omari is in Britain this month for a conference and will vote in her country's elections on 30 January while she is in London.

But she admits it would be a different story if she was in Baghdad right now.

"If I had been in Baghdad I would not have gone to vote because it is too horrifying and scary," she told the BBC World Service's Outlook programme.

She is not alone. Many Iraqis living abroad who have registered to vote in recent days said similar things.

Syria: 500,000
Jordan: 360,000
US: 313,000
UK: 250,000
Iran: 134,137
UAE: 100,000
Sweden: 91,600
Germany: 75,000
Australia: 75,000
Netherlands: 44,000
Turkey: 40,000
Canada: 36,000
Denmark: 26,000
France: 8,000
Number of Iraqis living in 14 nations where voting is to be held
(Source: IOM)
"Perhaps it is better that we are voting from outside Iraq," Bassima Muhammad al-Naima, originally from Karbala but now in Syria, told the New York Times.

"Here in Syria, we have the safety to campaign and to vote freely. I have a friend in Iraq who is working on a campaign, and she feels terrified while she hands out fliers."

There have even been reports of Iraqis choosing to flee their country as the elections approach for fear of further violence.

One Baghdad travel agency owner, who asked not to be identified, said she had taken a number of requests for flights from wealthy Iraqis who wanted to leave before the elections, according to the Washington Post.

But all this does not appear to have had much impact on the number of Iraqis abroad registering to vote.

Holiday impact

The head of the Jordan-based programme of registering expatriate Iraqi voters, Peter Erben, told the BBC News website there could be several factors why so few had so far put their names on the lists.

People have to attend polling stations twice, once to register and then to vote - inconvenient for those who have distances to travel.

We have all the facilities available, it is up to the Iraqis to come out and vote now
Peter Erben
International Organisation for Migration

Some fear their details may be shared with the Iraqi government - something Mr Erben stressed would not happen - and may be concerned about security.

Mr Erben hopes numbers will pick up in the next few days with the start of the Eid holiday and more free time for people to vote.

"We have all the facilities available, it is up to the Iraqis to come out and vote now," he said.

'Skewed election'

But how crucial might the expatriate vote be?

With many initially predicting a strong turnout abroad, analysts believed it could have a real impact if violence in Iraq kept voters there at home.

A US soldier walks through debris left by a massive car bomb that exploded near the Australian Embassy in the al-Karrada neighbourhood of Baghdad on 19 January
Violence has increased in the run-up to the election

"Without the security fears it's easier to vote abroad... there's a risk of a skewed election if there's a low turnout in Iraq," Hemmer Fuertig, analyst at the German Institute for Middle East Studies, was quoted by the AFP news agency as saying.

Farid Ayar, spokesman for Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission, has said they expect around eight million to vote in Iraq on the day - out of 15 million eligible to vote, from a total population of 26 million.

Fareed Sabri, London representative for the Iraqi Islamic Party - the largest Sunni party - believes turnout will be low in the Sunni areas that have been insurgent strongholds.

"We don't think it will be much more than 10% of the population because of the security situation," he told the BBC News website.

We are always hearing from people that they are ready to go to the polling stations and vote
Farid Ayar

He said the decision to keep details of the polling stations secret until the last minute, and a ban on cars without official permits would not help.

"Iraqis do not know where the polling stations are. They will also refrain from using their cars because they could be shot at, but they are not going to walk five to 10 miles (8-16km) to vote," he said.

The Iraqi Islamic Party is boycotting the election, even though its candidates are still on the ballot sheet, amid violence and discontent among the minority Sunnis.

'Genuine excitement'

Yahia Said, a research fellow at the London School of Economics' Centre for the Study of Global Governance, believes turnout among the Sunni population will be better than expected.

He has spent a lot of time talking to ordinary Iraqis about the elections and believes there is genuine excitement about the chance to vote for the first time.

Registering Iraqis to vote in Syria
Registration centres hope for a last-minute influx of people

"The turnout will not be high, but I think it will be better than people expect," he told the BBC news website.

"Insurgents are betting on putting people off, but it is very hard to scare the Iraqi people. This is something that isn't appreciated. They have become inured to violence over the years - especially in the western parts of Iraq."

Mr Ayar echoes that sentiment.

"We are always hearing from people that they are ready to go to the polling stations and vote, and they are eager to reach that day," he said.

"We feel we have to do everything in our power to make sure this happens - it is the first time in our lives that we have this chance to vote and have a say in our future."

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