Last week on election day, thousands of voters originally from outside Iraqi Kurdistan were told they could not vote. The reason? Logistics - wrong ID cards, wrong locations, wrong dates. But the voters say it was…

Originally published in by IRIS Director Christine van den Toorn (May 8, 2014).


“Arab or Kurd?” the security staff asked people entering the Jawahiri Elementary School in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah, in the semi autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan; this was last week, on election day. Then after asking this, they announced: “No Arabs can vote here”.

After being told they would not be allowed to vote there, around a hundred Iraqi Arabs – mostly from Baghdad with a few from Diyala – gathered outside the Jawahiri School. Most reported they had voted at this same school in past elections, and that they spoke Kurdish, some fluently, because they\'d lived in Sulaymaniyah for years. Some had been here for around three years and some for as many as ten years. Many were official residents of Iraqi Kurdistan.

“I have lived here ten years, I voted in the last elections, this is my iqama,” one man originally from Baghdad said, referring to his Iraqi Kurdish residency card.

The crowd in front of the school included families with children, elderly women in abaya and men in suits and dishdasha. They had all had long mornings and told of the same “wild goose chase” that had taken them from polling centre to polling centre: many went first went to the polling centre written on most of their cards, only to be turned away and told to go to either the Al Sinaa School or the Jawahiri School. There a group of young Iraqi Arab men began to protest, joining one of their number, who was chanting about the current injustice.

“I woke up at 6.30 this morning, excited and ready to vote,” said one man, also originally from Baghdad who works at a local IT firm; he has lived in Sulaymaniyah for six years. “I wanted to have a say in forming the next government.”

Some locals have estimated that overall, nearly 4,000 registered voters from outside of the Kurdistan Region were unable to vote in Sulaymaniyah and several media organisations have reported this number. Calls to the offices responsible for supervising elections in Sulaymaniyah were not returned. However in private, officials told NIQASH that they had no firm numbers on how many voters were unable to vote, nor did they have any numbers on how many of those unable to vote were Arab or came from outside Sulaymaniyah. Anecdotally though, there were plenty of examples of frustrated would-be voters.

But there was also determination. Many of the voters had been milling around the school for hours, waiting for news and a solution.

Later in the morning a crowd of the Iraqi Arabs who had been unable to vote went to the local offices of Iraq\'s Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, to ask for further information. “There were about 300 of us,” one of the men who had gone there, told NIQASH. “We formed a cordon at the headquarters near Azadi Park but the police came and beat us with their guns and forced us to leave.”

A number of reasons were given to the voters as to why they were turned away from polling stations.

Some blamed the new electronic voter identification cards. The polling station manager at the Jawahiri School said, “people had to vote where their E-card was issued … their cards were issued in Baghdad so they have to vote in Baghdad”.

Another polling station official, this time at the Solaf School, maintained that if those cards went into the scanners, the machines wouldn\'t read them.

The idea of having to vote in Baghdad seemed ludicrous to many in the crowd. One family from Baghdad – a professor at Sulaymaniyah University was there with his wife and two daughters, one of whom was a doctor, the other an engineer - were turned away after being told they could only use the electronic voter ID card in Baghdad.

“Where is Baghdad? I have lived in Sulaymaniyah for seven years,” the father responded, exasperated.

Some of the other Iraqi Arabs standing around said they had been allowed to vote because they had switched the place of issue for their ration card from Baghdad to Sulaymaniyah. “If you switch your card, you can vote,” explained a student from Baghdad who now lives in Iraqi Kurdistan, who wished only to be known as Ahmed. “But most people do not do this because it makes other things very difficult.”

Changing your ration card in Iraq means you have to switch over all of your other administrative documents as well, which can be a real headache considering the state of bureaucracy in Iraq.

For example, one family had switched their place of issue for their ration cards from Baghdad to Sulaymaniyah, where they have lived for the past eight years. However their electronic voter ID cards needed to be picked up in Baghdad - and they did not want to risk going there in person to do that.

“It is dangerous there,” said the head of the family, an engineer. “Why will I go to Baghdad and risk my life, or the life of one of my family members? No, I cannot.”

The other obstacle for the Iraqi Arab voters in Iraqi Kurdistan was apparently bad timing. Special elections were held in Iraq for members of the security forces, military and police, who would be working on the actual election day, two days before the general elections – and at the Jawahiri School, the polling station manager said that Arabs in Iraqi Kurdistan were also supposed to vote on April 28, rather than April 30.

Disgruntled voters waiting outside the school rejected this vehemently. They had never been told this, they said, there had been no media announcement. Although one of the security staff at the school said about a third of registered Iraqi Arab voters had actually turned up on Monday, his claim was refuted by another voter, who said he had come on Monday and been turned away.

Asking around, it was hard to say who was right but the overwhelming narrative was that this was never announced.

Apparently the order not to let Iraqi Arabs vote on April 30 had come straight from IHEC\'s Baghdad office. “We want to let you vote,” one sympathetic IHEC staffer at the Solaf School told the Iraqi Arabs. “But IHEC told us not to let you.”

Naturally this led to charges of political meddling in the ballot. Over the past four years, feelings of alienation and political marginalization have increased among Sunni Muslims in Iraq. There is a widespread perception that the current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is consolidating power and that Sunni Muslims are being disproportionately targeted by security forces. The current unrest in Anbar province is the result of this kind of dissatisfaction.

There is no doubt that voter turnout among Iraq\'s Sunni Muslims was low last week – partially because of frustration and dissatisfaction as well as due to violence in Sunni-majority provinces like Anbar. Many Iraqi Arabs who fled violence in the rest of the country have taken refuge in the comparatively stable and peaceful Iraqi Kurdish region.

“Most of the population up here is opposed to al-Maliki’s regime and his party, so maybe he doesn’t want us to vote,” one of the unhappy would-be voters suggested.

“Sunnis can’t vote, only Kurds and al-Maliki,” said one woman from Baghdad. Others echoed her sentiment, claiming this was “against Sunnis” and that “they [the government] don’t want Sunnis to vote.” Some Sunni Muslims believe the ongoing security crises in Anbar and Mosul have been concocted by al-Maliki regime to prevent them from going to polls. They also cite the fact that in Mosul, another Sunni Muslim stronghold, around 130 polling stations never even opened because IHEC didn\'t send enough people to staff them.

The handful of Iraqi Arabs who were allowed to vote last week on Wednesday had other complaints too: some were only allowed to vote for Iraqi Kurdish politician when what was really important to them was electing MPs to Parliament in Baghdad. The semi-autonomous region was holding its own provincial elections at the same time as the general elections and as one enraged and confused voter kept repeating: “I went in and they only gave me their Kurdish party ballot”.

Three others permitted to vote told the same story.“Why did they not give me the Iraqi ballot? I could only vote for the Kurdistan provinces,” one woman exclaimed.

Some suggested that because Sunni Muslim Iraqis, who had recently been displaced by the violence in Anbar and who had only just arrived in Iraqi Kurdistan, were allowed to vote, that there was no political conspiracy behind it all. This group were only required to show their national identification cards and temporary residency permits.

But others theorised that media attention forced the authorities to allow the displaced people to vote and that the group was so small as to be insignificant to the final results. Again it is hard to know what happened with this group’s votes with some locals saying they were not allowed to vote until 4pm and even then, they could only enter the polling stations three people at a time. At another polling station displaced residents of Anbar were apparently allowed to vote freely.

Standing among the crowd of frustrated Iraqi Arab voters outside Jawahiri School, it became clear that if al-Maliki\'s government had deliberately tried to stop these people from casting their ballots, that it had targeted the right group. Most of the crowd spoke of their desire to participate in the elections so they could change the government, and thereby the country, for better. Many of them just wanted to right to vote.

“I\'ll vote for the PUK [a leading Iraqi Kurdish political party] if you want me to,” one frustrated man originally from the nearby mostly-Arab city of Mosul, who now lives in Sulaymaniyah, said. “I just want to vote.”

“I really wanted to vote this time,” said an engineer from Baghdad who had moved to Iraqi Kurdistan with his wife and baby. “I want to change this current government.”