NPR Story
1:13 pm
Wed April 30, 2014

Iraqis And Iraqi-Americans Head To The Polls

Originally published on Wed April 30, 2014 4:51 pm

In Iraq today, people are voting in the first parliamentary elections since American forces withdrew in 2011.

There were also nine polling places set up in the U.S. for Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans to vote. One of the Iraqi-Americans who voted, Agnes Merza of Morton Grove, Illinois, speaks to Here & Now’s Robin Young.

The election comes amid a terrible spasm of violence in Iraq, including sectarian disputes and brutal fighting spilling over from neighboring Syria.

Despite this mess, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al Lakiki has said that his party is certain of victory, which would lead to a third, four-year term for the prime minister.

NPR International Correspondent Alice Fordham was in Iraq recently, and discusses the latest developments from today’s election.

Guest

  • Agnes Merza, Iraqi-American who lives in Morton Grove, Illinois.
  • Alice Fordham, international correspondent for NPR, based in Beirut, Lebanon. She tweets @AliceFordham.
Copyright 2014 WBUR-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wbur.org.

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

It is Election Day in Iraq, 9,000 candidates running for more than 328 representatives in parliament who will in turn vote on the president and prime minister. But Iraqis in the U.S. already voted. There are nine polling places run by the Iraqi government in the U.S. for Iraqis and Iraqi-Americans.

Agnes Merza is an Iraqi-American pharmacist, a Christian - that's a minority in Iraq. She now lives in Morton Grove, Illinois, just outside Chicago, and voted in Skokie this past Sunday.

Agnes, first we hear there were some problems at the polling places.

AGNES MERZA: A lot of people were turned away from voting. I would say 60 to 70 percent of our people were not able to vote.

YOUNG: Well, now let's explain that people, is there a nine polling places but there are Iraqi Americans across the country. So they'd come from different places to vote in Skokie? We're reading that people came from Ohio, even Alaska. One...

MERZA: Ohio, Alaska - exactly, yeah.

YOUNG: Someone drove overnight from Lincoln, Nebraska?

MERZA: Yes.

YOUNG: But there was a little bit of a problem because they all couldn't qualify?

MERZA: Yeah, they came all the way, drove 10 hours to vote. And then they were said: No, you cannot vote - you don't have one of the three documents.

YOUNG: Well, so a little bit of upset at the polls here in the U.S. But you did get to vote. What was this like for you to vote? Were you ever able to vote in your country when you lived there?

MERZA: No, I left the country '83. At that time we didn't have this constitutional right. That's why, like voting for my birth country is really very, very exciting. And even though I live in the United States but I, you know, my roots are there. I want to help my country to advance by exercising this constitutional right, which we have it for the first time.

YOUNG: Well, the thinking is that these elections will make Iraqi leaders perform better, because know they can be voted out of office by the parliament. But right now, sitting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who's Shiite, his party is expected to win the majority of seats. He is expected to stay in office.

So what are your thoughts about what you accomplished by casting your vote? Would do you think it means?

MERZA: You know, I'm hoping there will be a change.

YOUNG: Can I assume when you want change that you mean you'd like a new prime minister?

MERZA: No, that's not. You know, I believe change in the laws, change in the, you know, constitution - not in people. I think if the constitution is right, whoever is there will - if he or she follow the constitution, I think everything is going to go to the right direction.

YOUNG: Agnes Merza, an Iraqi-American living in Morton Grove, Illinois outside Chicago. Agnes, thanks so much.

MERZA: Thank you.

YOUNG: Well, NPR's Alice Fordham has been reporting from Iraq. And she's now monitoring the elections from Beirut. So, Alice, we're hearing from an Iraqi in the U.S. that many Iraqis here were turned away. They didn't have the right paperwork. How is it going in Iraq?

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Right, well, there have been some similar problems in Iraq. They're using for the first time quite a complicated system of electronic ID cards. And there have been reports of long waits at some polling stations. But in general people have been able to vote, if they've wanted to.

But I think the more worrying thing is that in parts of Iraq, the violence has been so bad that a lot of people are afraid to vote. Or a lot of people are displaced and they have trouble voting. And this is particularly true in the Sunni dominated areas. Reports coming out of the city of Ramadi today, where pretty much everyone is Sunni, suggests that maybe 15 percent of the population is turning out.

And this is bad particularly because one of the big political issues in Iraq now is Sunni marginalization. You know, many Sunnis feel that they've been victimized during the eight years that Maliki has been in charge. And if they're not represented in the new parliament, that's going to perpetuate the problem.

YOUNG: And just to remind people, al-Maliki is Shia. The Sunnis were in power during Saddam Hussein's reign, now they've been relegated somewhat to the sidelines as the Shia government is pretty much a ruling. And, as you're saying, that's going to continue if Sunnis don't vote.

FORDHAM: Right, exactly. And they are a minority. You know, the Shia are the very much the majority in Iraq now and they hold the political power. If the Sunnis don't vote then they're not going to be represented. You know, they're already a minority within the population and then within parliament, 'cause people do tend to vote within their (unintelligible) groups still.

YOUNG: Well, when you think it's keeping Sunnis from voting? Is it just feeling as if they can't effect change? Or is it this violence?

FORDHAM: Right, well, there have been really a lot of very serious threats of violence in these Sunni-dominated areas where anyway over the last few months we've seen al-Qaida-linked groups hold sway in some places and be very active in others. The one that we know as ISIS, which is the predominate one in Iraq and in Syria at the moment, issued an edict, which I think a lot of people found extremely unsettling.

They said, you know, do you really think that it's right to go and elect a man in a suit and tie to overrule the rulings of a religious person. And they promised to target polling stations and various other parts of the electoral machinery, and then they did so. So I think that there are a lot of people who are probably not voting today out of fear and with good reason.

YOUNG: Well that's very chilling, and you tell us that officials are responding. There's kind of a lockdown?

FORDHAM: Exactly, yeah. So today, actually, in terms of violence was a lot better than we might have expected. In the few days preceding this, we've seen some really vicious attacks. A political rally was attacked. The military and the medical personnel were voting yesterday, and they were targeted. So today the TV footage has just shown Baghdad and a number of other cities completely on lockdown, you know, empty streets, no cars allowed, no one allowed to go to work, even the airspace is closed, barricades everywhere, soldiers everywhere.

I think a lot of people have to walk to their polling station; they can't drive there. But thus far it's resulted in few attacks. There have been some smaller ones, but in general it seems that the situation has been relatively safe so far.

YOUNG: Well and what do you think is going to happen? As we said, the Shia are the majority. They are expected to vote for Shia representatives who might then vote again for the Shia leaders. But there's 9,000 candidates. So what's the sense of what might happen?

FORDHAM: Right, 9,000 candidates, exactly. So there's a vast political field. Yes, it's true that people do tend to vote within their ethno-sectarian group. But within those groups there's a huge amount of division. So we're very unlikely to see one party get a simple majority. The incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki today said oh, you know, my victory of my party is assured, but that's - that would be a big surprise.

So probably what will happen is that everyone will get a chunk of the vote, and afterwards there'll be a long, hot summer of political negotiations and coalition building as people who have quite often been sworn enemies in the past try to build a big enough bloc to dominate the government and to select a prime minister.

YOUNG: NPR's Alice Fordham in Beirut, monitoring the elections in Iraq. Alice, thank you.

FORDHAM: Thank you for having me.

YOUNG: And you're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.