Will expatriate Iraqis decide the election?

Various ideas for dealing with Sunni abstinence from the elections slated to be held in Iraq have been floated recently from everyone from the USG to the current Iraqi authorities and Osama bin Laden. The problem seems to flow from the fact that the Iraqi vote, instead of being regional, is national. If the elections were regional, those provinces which were unable to hold elections would be unrepresented until they were able to fill their slots, which would be a reasonable situation to manage. However, the elections are wide open instead, with each individual Iraqi voting for a list of candidates. Each list will be seated depending on the percentage of the vote it attracts – from Iraqis all over the world.

According to Edward Wong in the New York Times, the decision to allow exiled Iraqis to vote in the election, finalized in early November, exacerbated the tensions between the minority Sunnis and the majority Shi`a:

Iraqi electoral officials said Thursday they would allow millions of Iraqis outside the country to vote in the coming election. The decision, made after weeks of anguished debate, appeared certain to increase tensions among the minority Sunni Arabs here, because most Iraqi expatriates are believed to be Shiites.

“We’ve decided to allow Iraqis abroad to vote, and the mechanism will be worked out in the coming days,” said Adel al-Lami, a supervisor for the Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, charged with organizing the country’s first democratic elections, scheduled for January. “The voting will take place in those countries with a large number of Iraqis.” Those 18 and older will be eligible, he added.

The United Nations and the United States had recommended strongly against allowing expatriate voting because such polling is notoriously difficult to organize and because the process is more prone to irregularities and charges of fraud. Such problems arising could threaten the legitimacy of the election, United Nations and American officials said.

But leading Shiite and Kurdish politicians, as well as Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, strongly supported expatriate voting. Carlos Valenzuela, the leader of the United Nations electoral advisory team, said the dangers had been made clear to them. “We’ve told them from point one that it’s a very risky business,” he said. “People don’t realize the potential implications of this. They’re huge – practical, logistical, political. And all this has to be done in the time frame allotted.”

Clearly, if the elections had been regional, with seats allotted to each province, the expatriate vote would have been impossible. So it seems that once again the Iraqi Governing Council, which drew up the election rules, being mostly exiles themselves, sought to include the exile vote, and that is why there is now no practical answer to the problem of the Sunni boycott, despite all the plans currently being suggested.

There are an estimated 15 million eligible voters in Iraq. There are an estimated 4 million expatriate Iraqis, mostly Shi`a, eligible to vote. Somebody did the math.

Maybe it doesn’t even matter if there’s an election inside Iraq at all.