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

Voter Apathy Among Iraq Displaced

Few of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis forced to flee their homes have registered to vote in upcoming ballot.
By Zaineb Naji
Internal refugees in Iraq are showing little interest in taking part in the country’s delayed provincial elections despite extensive campaigns to increase voter registration.



Iraq’s electoral commission has registered 72,000 displaced voters, just 2.6 per cent of the total figure for those uprooted by the conflict.



Internally displaced persons, IDPs, are required to register on a special list in order to vote in the upcoming provincial council elections. They will be able to vote in ballots either in places where they now live or came from. Iraqis living outside the country will not be allowed to take part in the poll.



Registration figures are strikingly low despite television, radio and poster advertising campaigns urging IDPs that, no matter how far away they are from their homes, their votes will matter. Political leaders have amplified this message.



“The displaced represent a significant segment of Iraqi society, and being displaced should not deprive them of their right to vote,” said Qassim Daud, a member of the Shia-led United Iraqi Alliance, UIA, which is part of the ruling coalition in Baghdad.



In Baghdad, posters calling on IDPs to register to vote, which are prominently displayed throughout the country since July, are now looking rather tattered.



The provincial poll was originally scheduled for the autumn, but was delayed because of parliament’s failure to pass an election law, due to deadlock over a section of the proposed legislation relating to power-sharing in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. But the bill was unanimously approved on September 24, and January 31, 2009 has now been set as the deadline for holding the ballot.



The political bickering over the bill, and the delays to the election which this has caused, has not helped build voter enthusiasm, neither has the dire conditions in which many IDPs live.



Daud said that the government has failed to address many problems “which [has] created a disappointed citizenry”, with the displaced particularly neglected.



According to a report in July by the International Organisation for Migration, IOM, IDPs do not have adequate shelter or access to drinking water, food, health care, education and electricity.



Many are squatting in public buildings, mud huts, or in houses abandoned by other families. The latter is a widespread problem preventing many IDPs from returning home. Surveys have shown that more than 60 per cent of the displaced want to go back to their towns and villages.



Leaders of Sunni, Shia, Kurdish and secular parties have agreed that displacement issues need to be made a priority, with greater provision of aid for IDPs and help in settling them back into their former homes.



With the exception of the Kurds living in Iraqi Kurdistan – an autonomous area which has remained relatively secure – displacement, caused by the sectarian violence that broke out in February 2006, has devastated nearly all of Iraq’s religious and ethnic communities.



“The cries of the displaced must urge the politicians, as representatives of the people, to get them back to their homes,” said Jenan Al-Ubaidi, a member of parliament with the United Iraqi Alliance.



“We won’t [compromise] on the issue of the displaced. Their return home is a must,” said Shatha Al-Ubusi, a Iraqi National Accord MP and member of parliament’s human rights committee.



Abbas Fadhil, a political analyst with Human Rights Democracy, a non-governmental organisation in Baghdad which monitors elections, noted that politicians are trying to court the displaced, whose issues are considered “very hot” in the campaign.



Politicians are promising to call on international aid agencies to give IDPs more aid and ensure that the government fulfils its commitment to assist them with the return process.



Meanwhile, the displaced say their conditions have improved little over the past two years.



Ahmed Al-Kubaisi, a 25-year-old teacher who fled Baghdad for Ramadi in July 2006 after his brother was killed, said he has little faith in the politicians’ pledges, despite receiving help from a Sunni political party, the People of Iraq, led by Adnan Al-Dulaimi.



The party helped him to find affordable housing and food aid, the kind of assistance that has won over some displaced voters in Baghdad and Ramadi. But Kubaisi says that he and his family will not vote in the provincial elections.



“The political parties are responsible for all that has happened, all of the sectarian problems and violence,” he said.



Zaineb Naji is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad.