DAMASCUS // In the small, tidy sitting room of the flat where he has lived as a refugee for almost three years, Abu Hamza was discussing with his Iraqi friends whether they will vote in the upcoming election. Mr Hamza, 55, an exile from Basra, said he planned to take part. His neighbours were less sure, dismissing the ballot as a piece of theatre with no real meaning. "I'm going to vote; it might not make any difference, but it's a small candle in the darkness," Mr Hamza said. "At this point, it's all we've got left, it's the only way we can influence the future."
His friend, Ziad Abu Badri, a refugee from Baghdad who moved to the Damascus suburb of Sahnaiya in late 2006, after his young daughter saw a man get murdered in the street near their old home, shook his head, insisting there was no point. "I won't vote; it's just a choice between the same old faces. We have all these candidates with proven track records as failures, and they are standing again. It's ridiculous.
"I can choose Ayad Allawi, who failed as Iraqi prime minister, or Ibrahim Jaafari, who failed as prime minister, or Nouri al Maliki, who has failed as prime minister. Maliki is the worst of them all. Why would I give any of these people my support?" Mr Hamza, a softly spoken father of one who, before the 2003 invasion worked for the United Nations in Iraq, nodded in sad agreement but stuck to his argument. "If I don't vote, then I'm sure someone will cheat and use my identity to vote for them, so at least I can stop that.
"I think I'll vote for Ayad Allawi. It will be difficult for him to do anything, but he is the only one who can make the changes that need to happen. He is the only one who doesn't care if you are Sunni or Shiite or Christian or anything else." Yusra Hafi Hafith, 42, smartly dressed with a brightly coloured headscarf, laughed and said the line-up of candidates amounted to "the same old robbers". "They campaign with promises of what they will bring the Iraqi people, but what they mean is what they will bring themselves," she said. "I have no confidence in these people. I am confident of only one thing: whoever the next leaders are, they will work hard to steal more than the previous ones."
Despite that opinion, she said she would still cast her ballot, albeit reluctantly. "I have little hope of change; I don't think my vote will make any difference, but I will vote. I will choose the candidate I think is least bad. It's not a positive vote, but it's all I can do." According to Iraqi election officials, Syria is the country with the largest number of exiles, although exact figures are impossible to pin down. The United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) in Syria has registered 208,000 Iraqi refugees, but many families live without refugee status. The Syrian authorities say more than a million Iraqis live in the country, while western diplomats say it is closer to 300,000.
Regardless of the actual numbers, Syria remains an important constituency for Iraq's political parties and they have been campaigning accordingly. In neighbourhoods with a large Iraqi population, such as Saida Zeynab, Jeramaneh and Sahnaiya, hundreds of campaign posters have been put up and party members have been doing the rounds, trying to drum up support. According to some prospective voters, this campaigning has not always been within the rules: some insist they have been promised "rewards" in exchange for turning out.
A supporter of Mr Allawi's, Iraqiyya list said party workers in Sahnaiya had implied cash payments would be made to those who backed them. "We had two women come round and they said they were working secretly because they have no permission from the Syrian authorities," said the man, who asked that his name be given only as Abu Ahmad. "They asked who I was voting for and I said 'Allawi'. They told me to get as many of my friends as I could to vote the same way and that there would be a 'big reward' for all of us.
"I told them I don't need a reward, that I'll vote for Allawi anyway, but they insisted that everyone who stood up for him in the election would get something." Abu Ahmad said he had asked if the reward was money but received an evasive answer. "They only said, 'a big reward', but I am sure it's money. I think it must be at least $100. It might sound expensive, but that kind of money is nothing if it gets you four years as the prime minister of Iraq - it's a small price and you'll get your investment back a million times over."
He said the canvassers had noted his name and mobile number, and also written down those of his family and friends on a list they were compiling. They promised a car would come to drive Iraqiyya supporters to the polling station. Iraqiyya representatives in Syria were unavailable for comment, but all of the parties' offices in Baghdad have said they are complying with election rules. Saad Alrawi, a senior official in Iraq's independent high electoral commission (IHEC) who is overseeing a fair contest in Syria, promised action would be taken against anyone buying votes.
"It's illegal to offer to pay for votes and if we catch anyone doing that, we will want to see them punished to the full extent of the law," he said. "There have been no cases of that in Syria as far as we know, but if there are they will be punished." According to Mr Alrawi, all of Iraq's political blocs are represented in Syria, and he said he hoped for a high turnout at dozens of polling centres nationwide. Any Iraqi here would be allowed to vote without prior registration, he said, providing they had two forms of identification, one of which contained details where they had lived in Iraq. Under the election law, Iraqis outside the country will have their votes counted as if they had cast them in their home province.
With no pre-election polling taking place, it is d ifficult to predict how the exile vote will break down, although UN population figures provide a crude guideline for estimates. According to UN refugee records for Iraqis in Syria, 63 per cent are Sunni Arab, 18 per cent Shiite, 12 per cent Christian with the remaining seven per cent from other minorities or Muslims who refused to specify their sect.
In previous elections Iraqi Shiites have, by and large, voted for Shiite parties, which for the 2010 ballot principally means the Iraqi National Alliance. Christians have tended to vote for Christian candidates, or for secular figures such as Mr Allawi. Sunnis are also expected to support either Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya list or the Unity Alliance of Iraq, led by the interior minister, Jawad al Bolani.
If the number of campaign posters is any guide, even Shiite-dominated Saida Zeynab will come out in force for the Iraqiyya list. Any votes Mr Allawi is able to collect there could be crucial if he is to win a meaningful number of parliamentary seats. There is vibrant debate among Iraqis in Syria about the election. What most seem to agree on, however, is that few will back Nouri al Maliki for another term as prime minister. "If we thought he was a good leader, we'd be in Iraq, not living here," Abu Ahmad, the Iraqiyya supporter, said.