Refugees vote in first democratic election

Many of the displaced Syrians were excited about participating in the electoral process to help operate their camp.

By Dalia Mortada for SES Türkiye in Kilis -- 29/01/13

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Thousands of Syrians at a camp in southeastern Turkey recently voted in their first free democratic election.

  • Poll workers assist a voter during the camp election. [Dalia Mortada/SES Turkiye]

    Poll workers assist a voter during the camp election. [Dalia Mortada/SES Turkiye]

  • Polling booths featured covers to provide privacy. [Dalia Mortada/SES Turkiye]

    Polling booths featured covers to provide privacy. [Dalia Mortada/SES Turkiye]

  • A banner about the election is displayed in the camp. [Dalia Mortada/SES Turkiye]

    A banner about the election is displayed in the camp. [Dalia Mortada/SES Turkiye]

Syrians went to the polls to elect mukhtars at the refugee camp in Kilis to represent six camp districts. The mukhtars were elected, along with two running mates, who will assist the mukhtars in co-ordinating humanitarian aid, and health, education and security services among camp residents.

Voters lined up at the polls, picking up their ballots and entering makeshift voting booths shrouded with burgundy cloth. Outside, the camp's younger residents held a freedom rally, chanting revolution songs.

"God willing, this is the first [of many] democratic elections for you," Minister of Economy Zafer Cagalayan said on a visit to the camp two days prior to the election.

Signs were provided by the local government in Kilis to greet visitors to the camp: "Thank you Turkey! Thank you Kilis government! Thanks to you we started, for the first time, to practice democracy!"

The Kilis government first proposed the idea for the camp to elect representatives as a symbolic move towards democracy, and also so that the camp residents could turn to people they trust to meet their needs. Many refugees were excited about the January 17th elections, citing it as the first chance they have ever had to freely select their leaders.

"In Syria, you are given a piece of paper with two boxes: yes and no," said Ahmed, a mukhtar candidate who did not win the election for his neighborhood. "This is the first time in our lives we get a choice."

Ahmed explained that in Syria, the choice whether to even vote did not exist. If a person did not go to the polls on election day, they feared their neighbors would tell government informants, who would come after them.

"[On election day] your legs automatically took you," he said. "And there is no secret room, you are being watched."

Abu Omar was imprisoned for 23 years in Syria. One of his relatives was involved with the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, and while Omar was not connected with the organisation, the government held him captive because of his relative's association. For him, the right to select a leader freely and safely, even if it was purely symbolic, meant a great deal.

"In Syria, you had to whisper in your own home if you wanted to talk about politics," he said. "Even the walls have ears," he said, adding that people feared their neighbours eaves-dropping on conversations.

There were numerous female candidates for mukhtar as well, a point of pride for the camp residents and the Kilis government. Randa, a candidate for mukhtar in her district who did not win, said she was honored to receive the support she had during her candidacy. Her husband was in favour of her running.

"Women are more in touch with people's needs and have more patience," said Mohammed, Randa's husband. When asked who would care for her two children if she got too busy with mukhtar responsibilities he said, "I'm in her place. …We're a democracy in this family."

Among the most important issues for the residents was the issue of food prices, which many complained were higher inside the camp than in Kilis. Many candidates promised to work to make it easier for refugees' relatives to visit the camp as well.

"The issue of visitors is my number one priority," Hamza, a mukhtar candidate who did not win, said. "Right now, we have to leave the camp in order to see our relatives who visit from other camps."

Ahmed and Randa also shared these priorities. Randa also had some priorities for women – to train them in nursing and to help them learn skills similar to the embroidery classes offered at the camp already.

But not all residents were in support of the elections.

"The problem is when they get elected, they're going to get big egos and not accomplish anything," Khadija said. "Besides, we get everything we need from the Turkish government; what will these mukhtar do, anyway?"

Mohammed, another camp resident, did not believe the elections were democratic at all. He cast a ballot, but left it blank.

"I only want to choose person, but the way the election is set up, I must choose three," he said.

Since each mukhtar candidate ran with two running mates, a ballot cast for the candidate is one cast for the whole group.

"What if I don't think the other two [running mates] are any good?" he said. "I'm forced to select three when I only want to choose one."

Still, thousands of the camp's residents cast their votes. Election officials counted the ballots publicly, tipping over the ballot box and separating the envelopes to be counted amongst them to ensure fairness and accuracy.

According to a statement issued by the Kilis election officials, the winners took their seats with 1,698 votes, combined. Many expressed hope that this is the first of many free elections in their futures.


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