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Iraqis in Lebanon seize the chance to vote for change

  • Billboards that urge Iraqi nationals residing in Lebanon to participate in the upcoming Iraqi elections are attached on the Zahrani highway, Thursday, April 24, 2014. (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

BEIRUT/SIDON, Lebanon: Sitting in front of his restaurant on a bustling street in Hamra, Ahmad al-Baghdadi says he is eager to vote in the upcoming elections, but he’s not talking about the vote in Lebanon later this year – he’s talking about next week’s parliamentary polls in Iraq.

“I’m definitely going to vote,” says Baghdadi, who comes from the Iraqi capital that shares his name.

“We need change. The current government is not doing anything good and has been a failure on many things including security, the economy, and delivering services.

“They’ve been a failure and haven’t done anything. They’ve been in power for nearly a decade and their time is up.”

There are between 30,000 and 40,000 Iraqis currently in Lebanon, according to Mohannad Ghazi, director of the elections office in the Beirut district of Hamra. That figure is based on information taken from the Iraqi Embassy in Beirut, General Security, and various non-governmental organizations that work with Iraqi refugees. Students and business owners also contribute to Lebanon’s Iraqi population.

Ghazi estimated that there were 12,000 to 15,000 Iraqis of voting age – 18 or older – but declined to predict how many would turn out this weekend. The elections are scheduled for April 30 but Iraqis wishing to vote in Lebanon will head to the polls on April 27 and 28. They can vote at five centers located in Beirut’s Hamra, Boushrieh in Jdeideh or Zahrani in the south, with two in Beirut’s southern suburbs.

Some Iraqis on holiday in Lebanon would also be eligible to vote from here, Ghazi added. Iraqis abroad can vote for council members in one of 19 countries and this year more are expected to cast their vote from Lebanon due to fighting in neighboring Syria, which will prevent polling centers from being set up.

To spread the word, the Independent High Electoral Commission’s Lebanon office has placed ads on billboards, trucks and television, and photos of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki straddle Lebanon’s southern roads, urging expats to vote.

Baghdadi expressed hope that voting for new parties and leaders would change his country’s current dire situation.

“The ballot box can change things,” he says. He still has family in the Iraqi capital, and comes and goes every four to five months, despite concerns over the safety of his family and himself.

The seats of the 328 members of the Council of Representatives are up for grabs. The council then elects a president and prime minister. At present, the largest bloc in the council belongs to the Iraqi National Movement headed by Ayad Allawi, a former interim prime minister, with 91 seats. Maliki’s State of Law Coalition follows close behind, with 89.

Baghdadi hopes that a newly elected government will lead the country away from sectarianism and partisanship, two developments that he feels have grown under the current regime.

“Twenty years ago things were amazing, but today it’s different,” he says.

Like many Iraqis, he is nostalgic for the days of late Saddam Hussein’s rule. While many lived in fear of his iron-fisted policies, some believe the relative security during Hussein’s unforgiving rule was preferable to the current state of affairs, in which car bombs and explosions are pervasive.

Baghdadi also holds out hopes that a change in council members could decrease foreign meddling.

“We want a liberal and civil state,” he says. “Also, we don’t want to continue being pressured by Iran or Saudi Arabia.”

Another Baghdad expat, Saad Wahib Hasan, says he came to Lebanon just over a year ago. He left his country because of “sectarianism and explosions,” for which he holds his government partly responsible.

“The current government didn’t bring anything to the country,” he says. Much like Baghdadi, Hasan’s primary concern is his country’s security, something that he hopes voting will help to reinstate.

“We should vote. It should be important [for citizens to vote] and to bring security to our country.”

For Baghdadi, voting is the only way to try and bring about change in his violence-plagued country.

He says that while freedom is important, “without security, we are not free at all.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on April 26, 2014, on page 3.
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Summary

There are between 30,000 and 40,000 Iraqis currently in Lebanon, according to Mohannad Ghazi, director of the elections office in the Beirut district of Hamra.

Ghazi estimated that there were 12,000 to 15,000 Iraqis of voting age – 18 or older – but declined to predict how many would turn out this weekend. The elections are scheduled for April 30 but Iraqis wishing to vote in Lebanon will head to the polls on April 27 and 28 .

Some Iraqis on holiday in Lebanon would also be eligible to vote from here, Ghazi added. Iraqis abroad can vote for council members in one of 19 countries and this year more are expected to cast their vote from Lebanon due to fighting in neighboring Syria, which will prevent polling centers from being set up.

Like many Iraqis, he is nostalgic for the days of late Saddam Hussein's rule.


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