February 27, 2010
Baghdad // The March 7 election may be a critical event in the contest to decide Iraq’s future, but for some of the nation’s poor, the right to vote does not mean having a say in who leads the country; it means having something to sell to make desperately needed cash.
With intensive campaigning now under way in what is shaping up to be a highly competitive ballot, votes have become a precious commodity, a fact not lost on many ordinary people who care little for politics but who struggle to make ends meet.
"Elections are a beautiful opportunity to get some money," Ahmad Salam said. "There are lots of people willing to sell their votes, and lots of people who want to buy them."
A mechanic by trade working in the impoverished Sadr City slum of north-eastern Baghdad, Mr Salam has taken on the role of an election agent with a difference. He collects votes and then offers them en masse to whichever party is prepared to make the highest bid, taking a commission for his efforts.
"I have 100 people who have given me their vote to sell," he said outside the small garage where he is employed as a casual worker, earning a few dollars a day. "None of them cares who wins, none of them thinks it makes any difference, so they give me their vote, and I sell it."
According to Mr Salam, some of the poorest voters were prepared to take as little as US$5 (Dh18) to guarantee their allegiance in the election booth. Most charge more, between $20 and $100, depending on the number of voting-age adults in their family.
"If you have five or six people in your family who can vote and you get $20 for each one, that’s good money when all you have to do to earn it is stand at a polling centre for an hour," he said.
Various parties had already been in negotiation with him over the 100 votes, he said, but he has not yet made a decision to sell; with two weeks left before election day, he expects to be able to push the price up and collect more votes to sell.
"I’ve spoken with many candidates already about this from various political parties," he said. "I’ve talked to most of the big parties, all of them, religious, secular, nationalists and they were all interested in buying. Here [in Sadr City] it is the religious groups that are the richest and strongest so I expect I will sell to them."
Selling and buying votes is illegal under Iraqi law and various parties and candidates contacted by The National insisted they would never engage in such practices.
None were prepared to comment on the record about the issue, insisting they did not want their name associated with election fraud in any context, even to deny it.
One MP allied with Iraqiyya, the nationalist movement led by the former prime minister Ayad Allawi, said buying votes was "unethical and pointless". Iraq has a secret ballot system, which means that a voter could in theory take money from one candidate and cast their ballot for another, without ever revealing who they really supported.
However, many Iraqis, especially the uneducated – often, although not always the poor – do not believe their votes are cast in secret. Therefore if they made a deal to sell their support, they would honour the sale.
In the military neighbourhood of Aziziyah, 60km south-east of Baghdad, Um Malk, an elderly widow, said she had sold her vote in the 2009 provincial elections to a candidate who brought her some blankets and electrical goods.
"That man was from a Shiite party and said if I voted for him, I would get gifts," she said.
"This time I know better and I will not give my vote for so little. I want to sell it, but I need $100 because I have three daughters who will vote as I tell them."
One of her neighbours, Zuhair Aqeel, is also an election agent, who collects votes and sells to the highest bidder. "I have done this work in every election since the first in 2005. From the last elections I earned enough to buy a small taxi which has given me a good living.
"This year I hope to do even better and I think I will be able to get one of the candidates to promise me a job in a government office or as an administrator in the police or army. If I get that, I will be comfortable; I’ll have a stable salary and a stable life."
In previous elections winning parties have made little secret of bestowing favours on supporters. Under the sectarian system of Iraq’s current government, which is due to change constitutionally after this election, ministerial portfolios were divided out among parties, which then gave out jobs largely as they saw fit.
In Hilla, 60km south of the capital, Mohammad al Maliki, 25, said he was also touting votes as a selling agent. He normally works as a street sweeper on temporary contracts.
"I’ve got almost 200 people who have given me their vote to sell," he said. "All I need is the money to pay them and a promise that I will have a job after the election. Whichever candidate gives me that, I will give them the votes."
Mr al Maliki said he had spoken to a leading local candidate who had given him an assurance of $60 per vote, plus employment. He dismissed suggestions his actions were either illegal or immoral.
Those working as election agents all said they kept a list of the names they had collected and, once they have sold the votes to a candidate, would make sure the entire group voted on polling day. Payments would only be made after the election