Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

UK Iraqis Flock to the Polls

Iraqi election fever grips a small corner of suburban North London.
By Daniel Trilling
Jubilant Iraqis dance in the street, waving flags and cheering as passing cars and campaign vans honk their horns in response. The queue of eager voters stretches around the corner of the polling station as officials rush to and fro, trying to direct the sea of people towards the ballot boxes. Further off, police and security guards stand watch to make sure the election passes without incident.

This, however, is not a scene from Baghdad, Basra or Kirkuk. It’s Wembley on a damp Wednesday afternoon. Amid the concrete slabs and building sites of this north London suburb, a Hindu community centre is the unlikely setting for a scene from the latest episode in Iraq’s turbulent history.

Overseas voting for the Iraqi general election is taking place this week in 15 countries around the world, including the UK. At centres in London, Birmingham and Manchester, British-based Iraqis have been casting their votes in their country’s first full-term parliamentary election.

So far, several thousand people have poured through the London centre’s doors since polling opened on Tuesday morning. It bares little resemblance to the genteel parish churches and primary schools used in British general elections. Teams of advisers are on hand to talk voters through the electoral system and the 300-odd political entities standing for office, while more than 150 observers from political parties and international organisations oversee the voting process.

Security is tight, with British and Iraqi police keeping watch. Prospective voters have to pass through airport-style metal detectors and security checks upon entry. But they remain undeterred. So far, turnout looks to have at least equalled that of January’s election and London operations manager Mostafa Hashim is in an optimistic mood.

“The good turnout this week is an indication that people are trusting the political process and sends a message to the terrorists and enemies of freedom in Iraq that they won’t stop us. Whoever wins at the ballot box, it is really the Iraqi people who have won today,” he said.

This is the first election to be carried out by Iraq’s own Independent Electoral Commission, IECI, and getting ready in time has been a mammoth task. The Iraqi Association, a charity that provides support to the estimated 250,000 Iraqis living in Britain, warned in November that there was a lack of information about candidates and the voting process.

But these problems seem to have been overcome. Press officer Souad Aljazairy explains how hard staff have had to work to meet their deadline.

“I started my job three weeks ago and there has not been enough time to deal with everything – we’ve been working from nine in the morning to 2am the next day. But although I am tired, as an Iraqi I can say that this is democracy. We have waited a long time for this moment, even fought for it with our lives,” she said.

Outside the election centre, 44-year-old Shwani Ahmed proudly displays a purple-stained index finger and smiles when asked how he feels about voting.

“This is the first time in my life that I’ve voted and I’m very happy about it. I left Iraq six years ago but I wouldn’t go back because I’m worried about my safety. Hopefully this election will establish stability and then I will be able to return,” he said.

A change to the Iraqi nationality law earlier this year means that anyone with an Iraqi parent is eligible to vote. As a result, some voters may have never set foot in the country.

Angela Alalioui, 28, left Iraq when she was a baby, but still sees voting as a necessity.

“It’s important that every Iraqi votes in this election. Not just for us, but for our children’s futures. Some people say why vote if you’re not going to benefit, but if I don’t take this opportunity to vote, then who will?” she said.

Daniel Trilling is an IWPR contributor.

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