The April 30 Iraqi parliamentary elections and Turkey

The parliamentary elections, set to be the fourth since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, have already begun with the setting up of ballot boxes abroad. A total of 21.4 million voters are going to cast their ballots in these elections. Of the 9,040 candidates vying for representative seats, just 328 new MPs will be elected.

In the meantime, votes outside the borders of Iraq were cast on April 27-28 (Sunday and Monday). The approximately 800,000 Iraqi citizens who live abroad were able to head to the ballot boxes available over two days in 19 different countries. Had the ballot boxes been made available on Saturday and Sunday, rather than Sunday and Monday, some note that even more citizens would have been able to vote. In Turkey, there are around 40,000 Iraqi citizens. Ballot boxes were available for them to cast their votes in both İstanbul and Ankara. A voting center had been planned for in Gaziantep but plans for it were cancelled after it was deemed too expensive.

When one considers that around half of the Iraqis living in Turkey are here illegally, it becomes clear that the actual number of votes cast in these elections was probably fewer than 20,000, with around 2,000 of these votes being cast in Ankara and the remainder in İstanbul. When I acted as leader of a delegation of Turkish election observers for the Iraqi parliamentary elections in 2010, there were around 6,000 Iraqi votes cast in Turkey that year. Of these, around 4,000 were cast by Iraqi Turkmen. On April 28, Iraqi military members, members of the police force, hospital workers and prison officials were able to cast their votes early. According to Iraqi electoral law, voters can vote for both the parties as well as the candidates they most prefer on their party candidate lists.

The favorite in the upcoming elections is the State of Law Coalition Party, with Nouri al-Maliki at its helm, vying for his third term as prime minister of the country. In Iraq, where violent clashes between government forces and armed groups — not to mention acts of terrorism and rampant Shiite-Sunni tension — are all part of daily life, it is never expected for any single political party or coalition to be able to receive enough seats to form a government on its own.

The Iraqi region with the greatest security problem is Anbar; in fact, the Iraqi electoral commission has already announced that voting will not occur in certain areas of the Anbar region because of this. The Anbar region, which is Iraq’s largest province, borders Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Syria. There are strong familial and political ties between the Sunni Arabs living in the Anbar region and their neighbors over the borders. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is an effective force. If Sunni Arabs are not integrated into politics, the violence in not only the Anbar region but throughout all of Iraq will not end, nor can any permanent solutions be found.

In the meantime, Ankara and Arbil continue to become both politically and economically closer to one another. And at the same time, the crisis in trust between Ankara and Baghdad is only growing and is beginning to reflect onto Iraqi citizens. For the past two years, there has been a stronger and stronger perception among Iraqi people which could be characterized as: “Turkey is getting too involved in our domestic matters. Turkey is supporting sectarianism [Sunni] in Syria. Are we next in line?” This very real tension is, in the meantime, making it more and more difficult for Turks to engage in business in Iraq. There are a total of 1,600 Turkish companies and 45,000 Turkish citizens in Iraq. Due to terrorism as well as the tension between Ankara and Baghdad, a full 70 percent of Turkish companies and citizens only do business in the Iraqi Kurdistan region, the only stabile region in Iraq. Interestingly, there are 110 Turkish companies located in Basra, which has been close to both Turkey and Turks alike since the Ottoman times. In assessing this situation, one needs to set aside the question of who is guilty and who is innocent when looking at Ankara and Baghdad. What needs to happen instead is for foundations based on good intentions to be built.

In Turkey, the Iraqi elections will be followed closely by experienced diplomats and observers. In Baghdad, the Turkish Embassy is staffed by a very young but also experienced cadre of people. Faruk Kaymakcı is the youngest envoy ever sent by Turkey to Baghdad. At the same time though, Kaymakcı is also very experienced, with years spent as the consul to Basra. Likewise, the Turkish Embassy’s undersecretary, Efe Ceylan, is also very young but very experienced.