The Guardian 26 January, 2005

"Let your voices be heard":
Iraqis go to the polls in Australia

On Sunday January 30, elections will be held for Iraq's Transitional National Assembly. Members of the 275 seat Assembly will be elected by proportional representation with a one-year mandate. The Assembly will be responsible for drafting a constitution, electing a Presidency Council (a president and two deputies) and the government for one year until a government is elected under the new constitution.

The constitution must then be put to a national referendum for ratification, hopefully before the end of this year. The elections in Iraq are taking place under extremely difficult conditions. Outside of Iraq, voting is also taking place, enabling many of the Iraqis who left their country for political or other reasons to also take part.

The external elections are being conducted by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in 14 countries where they could locate significant Iraqi populations, including in Australia (Sydney and Melbourne).

Registration for voting out-of-country voting (OCV) was set down for January 20-23, but has since been extended by two days.

Bernie Hogan from the IOM is Head of Country-Australia Iraq OCV in charge of the elections in Australia and the assistant head is Kassim Aboud from the local Iraqi community.

When asked how the registration process was proceeding, Mr Hogan told The Guardian that it has been much slower than he would have liked but he was hoping for a surge of people before registration closed. "I was hoping for anywhere between fifteen and twenty thousand but I think I'll be lucky to get somewhere between ten or twelve thousand", Mr Hogan said.

"We've had a couple of minor hiccups we've dealt with on case by case basis. Most people seem to be aware of the process and that they need to register."

Mr Aboud said they had encountered a minority group that was putting out posters calling people to boycott the election which has no doubt contributed to the lower than expected number of registrations. The group was spreading fears amongst the community that if they participated in this election, the Australian Government would tell them, seeing Iraq had become a democratic country, that they would be deported, especially those people who are on temporary protection visas would be at risk of deportation.

"There are also other people who are fearful of their names somehow being leaked to the insurgent forces in Iraq and their families might be targeted in Iraq", Mr Aboud said.

"We try to reassure these people and we have said many times, that the information we have, the names of people who registered, would not be given to the Australian government, to the Iraqi government or to any other government. They stay confidential with the International Organisation for Migration."

"The IOM is a non-government organisation being mandated by the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq to organise elections for out-of-country voting for the Iraqi", Mr Aboud added.

"The IOM has a track record of conducting out-of-country voting programs. The IOM is recognised as a non-government organisation that can assist with out-of-country voting programs", Mr Hogan added.

The IOM is not so well known, "It's a very quiet organisation, working away in the background and this is probably the most public face we've had", Mr Hogan said.

"It does a lot of work in resettling people. A lot of people coming from Africa, for instance, where there is a lot of strife we assist with resettling them, we get them temporary visas in Australia or any other country. We have offices all round the world."

Unique, historic opportunity

Mr Kassim, a member of the local Iraqi community, will be voting. "I think this election means a great deal for the Iraqi people. It's a unique, historic opportunity for the Iraqi people to have their say in selecting a future Iraqi government, a right which has been denied for many, many years.

"In my case, for more than 24 years outside of Iraq and about 20 years inside Iraq. A lot of people have been waiting for 60 or 70 years for that", said Mr Aboud.

"It's wonderful to have this opportunity to cast your vote and have your say in the future government of Iraq, so that our children are not forced to leave their country It's the biggest out-of-country election in the world.

"It is estimated that about a million to a million and a half Iraqi people living outside of Iraq, although the number [registering] is disappointing at this stage. Iraqi people living outside the region are very lucky compared to all the countries surrounding Iraq and even some European countries.

"For example, in Afghanistan when they had elections, only Afghanis who lived in Iraq and Pakistan were allowed to vote, while we have voting in 14 countries. The Lebanese, for example, who live outside of the Lebanon have no right to vote. In Italy they [out-of-country voters] were allowed to vote, only in the last five years", Mr Aboud said.

"There are people who won't be able to vote and that's not going to be a perfect election, no one would deny that but nevertheless it is the first step and a historic and unique opportunity for Iraqi people and Iraqi people are determined to make it successful.

"We are under occupation, undoubtedly. Like any other country around the world Palestinians choose their president while under the constant attack by the Israeli fascist government. And they elect their own president. Why can't we have our own president?" Mr Aboud asked.

"More than 170 political entities have been registered and people are free to choose their political entity."

"I think the election will be democratic and I think election is the best and the first step it's the first election in our Iraqi history. Compared to other countries it's a great opportunity and a great deal and I think the first step toward rebuilding the country based on a Constitution, law and elections It puts Iraq on the road of democracy, stability and constitution", Mr Aboud added.

The alternative to elections would be "keeping Iraq in the circle of misery, violence and destruction and giving the opportunity to the insurgents to say: 'well, Iraqi people are not qualified to elect their government.' This is insulting to Iraqi people."

Mr Aboud pointed out that the insurgents who said the Governing Council was put there by the occupation forces are now against the Iraqi people choosing their own government.

"The elected government will have its mandate from Iraqi people. Then we tell the occupation forces to leave us alone."

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