Iraq’s Election, Stained and Singed

A fire on June 7 at Iraq’s key ballot storage facility in Sadr City, Baghdad, added another burn mark to an electoral process that was already under a cloud While there is no reason to think that the results of the main blocs forming the next government will be impacted by electoral disputes, the incident will only make those already suspicious of the process even more so.

The fire followed by a day parliament’s vote to amend the election law to require a nationwide recount by hand. The legislature also voided the vote abroad and a few other suspect categories amid a crisis in general confidence in the political system. The May 12 parliamentary election itself was held amid widespread distrust in establishment political parties, leading to a rate of participation of just 44 percent, a one-quarter decline from the previous election. The election led to a surprise plurality by the populist Sairun bloc backed by Muqtada Al Sadr, and while some of Sairun’s 54 seats came from either an increase in votes in certain provinces for Sadrists or Sadr’s alliance with secular parties, the strong majority were won by Sadr simply turning out his 2014 base amid broader abstention.

This disdain for the political class can only be reinforced by the ugly disputes over fraud allegations that followed election day. The greatest irony, considering that the June 6 amendment froze the activity of the current Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) and replaced the role of its commissioners with judges, is that the fiasco began with parliament’s vote last September to elect a new nine-member IHEC board staffed with political figures rather than professional election experts. Even more ironic is that that vote took place over Sadrists’ objections, and now the Sadrists, having won the election, are objecting to IHEC’s replacement with judges, which was the plan they proposed, and which parliament rejected.

Iraq’s “independent” electoral commission has long been led by partisan figures, and to the extent that it was ever neutral this was because the major political blocs all had representatives on the board so as to keep an eye out on one another. What never happened before was the emergence of an open split on the commission, but this happened on May 16 as Commissioner Said Kakai, the member nominated by the Kurdish oppositionist party, Gorran, gave a press conference to charge that there were major irregularities in the conduct of the election. Four fellow members of the commission held a counter-press conference in which they accused Kakai of undermining IHEC’s independence and claimed that he had been threatened by “a certain party” to make his claims. This implied Gorran.

Then on May 19, Kakai upped the ante by appearing on a widely watched evening talk show on the Sunni-oriented television channel, Al Shariqya, and made a much more detailed case. Kakai detailed data that purported to show discrepancies between the vote totals reported at the provincial level and a check against flash-drive records in each province, with the main discrepancies being in Anbar and the Kurdish areas.

The geographical distribution of alleged fraud is plausible; the Kurdistan provinces IHEC’s local directors are members of the dominant party, either the Kurdistan Democratic Party or the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and loyalist security forces have physical control over ballot areas. As for Anbar, a large portion of the vote takes place in Jordan, and critics of Jamal Al Karbuli’s Al Hal party, which currently holds the governorship, claim that Karbuli bought off Iraqi officials running the vote there. By contrast, in Shia-majority provinces the coalitions that ran behind were well represented in the commission and their fraud claims are less plausible.

Skeptics received a boost when Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi declared that an investigation by the cabinet had found problems “were more serious than initially thought,” which he blamed primarily on flaws in the electronic vote counting process. This followed a cabinet decision that voided all of the foreign vote and votes in camps for the displaced, and also demanded a hand count of at least 5 percent of nationwide votes. Al Abadi also noted that he forwarded the report to parliament to take “appropriate” action.

Thus, on June 6, parliament held a historic vote to not only void the votes indicated by the cabinet decree but went beyond it in requiring a hand count of all votes across the country. It also voided the security forces vote in Kurdistan, specifically over allegations that the dominant parties there had pressured members of the security forces to vote for them. Furthermore, the bill sidelined the current IHEC leadership and provided for judges appointed by the Judicial High Council (JHC) to oversee the recount. The JHC quickly signaled that it would comply with the order and move to take IHEC’s place.

And this brings us back to the ballot storage fire, which has given the electoral process another public black eye while perhaps doing no real damage to the election. According to the IHEC’s chairman, Maan Al Haytawi, all the ballots at the Sadr City storage facility had been scanned and electronic copies were held at IHEC headquarters. There is thus a record of all the votes. Yet with prominent losers like Speaker Salim Al Jiburi reacting to the fire by saying that the entire election should be annulled and staged again, the physical remains of the fire may be a metaphor for Iraq’s scarred and singed electoral process.

Kirk H Sowell is a political-risk analyst and publisher of the biweekly newsletter, Inside Iraqi Politics.