Iraqis in Hamilton voting in historic election that follows defeat of Islamic State

On Thursday and Friday Iraqis got to vote in their general election from Hamilton, an election being marked as a significant one since the country declared victory over the Islamic State extremist group.

Ashor Sworesho is one of hundreds of Hamiltonians voting in the Iraqi election

Ashor Sworesho brought the documentation he needed to show election officials in order to vote in the Iraqi election at a polling station on King Street East in Hamilton Friday. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

Over 9,000 kilometres from his home town in Northern Iraq, Ashor Sworesho cast his vote in Hamilton ahead of Saturday's Iraqi general election.

Sworesho is one of hundreds of Hamiltonians expected to vote in a downtown polling station for an Iraqi election being seen as historic — the first parliamentary election since the country declared victory over the Islamic State extremist group.

"Most people who are from Iraq still have a link to it. We see it has home, we see it as this is where we're from," said Sworesho.

He walked out of the voting station with his finger stained with semi-permanent purple ink, signifying that he's cast a ballot. But the ink stain also represents to him that he has exercised his democratic right and  that there is a change in the air.

Sworesho has called Hamilton home since 1997. This is the second Iraq election he has voted in since coming to a voting age in Canada. He says it's an important one.

Sworesho says the tradition now takes on a different meaning.

"It has become a status, a symbol of the blossoming democracy there," said Sworesho. "When you go out you show it saying that you supported [and] elect someone for Iraq."

Significant election

The balloting is expected to be a referendum on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's tenure and his pledge to be more inclusive of Iraq's Sunni minority.

The Hamilton polling station is one among a number across the country, giving people the opportunity to vote back home.
Men hang the Iraqi flag outside of the Lincoln Alexander Centre on King Street East where people have been casting their vote over the last two days. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

Voting in the city began Thursday with a steady stream of people flowing in Friday until polls close later tonight.

"It shows a growing community in Hamilton itself and at the same time it shows that a lot of people who had left Iraq hadn't done so voluntarily," said Sworesho.

"This helps Iraq —helps them to tell the Iraqis that are outside of Iraq that you still have a say in what happens in your home country."

When he entered the voting area at theLincoln Alexander Centre on King Street East, Sworesho knew exactly who he was voting for, but he says his candidate was among a very long list of contenders.
A few of hundreds expected to vote in the local Hamilton polling station for an election being marked as monumental — the first parliamentary election since the country declared victory over the Islamic State extremist group. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

There are 329 seats for the taking, with nearly 7,000 candidates from dozens of different political alliances.

Sworesho is Assyrian, a Christian, ethnic minority Indigenous to the Middle East. He was voting for one of the five secured seats held for Assyrians.

"This is hopefully a new start for all Iraqis and predominately I myself being Assyrian for the minorities there."

Voting from Canada

Thar Alkhayat of Toronto is working at the polling station after some training in Ottawa. Part of his job involves communicating with election officials in Iraq and sending them returns.

Alkhayat says there about 5,000 Iraqis in Hamilton and expects a turnout of about (2,000). He says on Thursday 300-400 showed up.

"I think this is the first time in Hamilton because we found that there were a lot of Iraqi people living here so we had to come here," said Alkhayat.

An electronic voting system is being used for the first time this year in Iraq to try to reduce fraud and speed up the counting process.

The independent body overseeing the election is estimating high turnout, because it comes amid a relative lull in insurgent attacks.
Abdelvahab Mohamedali's finger is coloured purple with permanent ink. It signifies that people have voted and are prevented from voting more than once. (Laura Clementson/CBC)

Security has been tightened across Iraq in the days before the election. Baghdad, Mosul and other major cities are imposing curfews on election day, and travel between provinces already has been restricted.

As of Friday, airports and border crossings will be closed. Islamic State militants no longer control significant pockets of Iraqi territory, but they do maintain a grip inside Syria along Iraq's border.

Along with a purple finger, Abdelvahab Mohamedali came out of the polling station with hope because he says last election it "didn't work."

"Now we're trying new people [and] maybe they are going to help our family there," said Mohamedali.

Results will be released within 48 hours of Saturday's poll close, according to the independent body overseeing the elections. 

Few foresee a dramatic government shake-up, however. The most powerful alliances expected to win the most seats are headed by the same parties that have dominated Iraqi politics since 2003.

About the Author

Laura Clementson is a journalist with CBC News. She can be reached at laura.clementson@cbc.ca. Follow Laura on Twitter @LauraClementson.

With files from The Associated Press