Iraq’s tainted elections may not derail government formation

Iraq’s tainted elections may not derail government formation

Over a month after the election, Iraqi politics is undergoing a bifurcated dynamic of proceeding with the government formation process, while simultaneously trying to address credible allegation of serious electoral irregularities.

When the results of the May 12 parliamentary elections in Iraq were first announced, Western governments and media outlets were full of praise for the process. Commentators claimed that the elections had shown that Iraqi democracy had differentiated itself from the sham elections held in places like Egypt. On the ground, it rapidly became clear, however, that there were serious flaws in how the elections had been managed. 

The 2018 elections resulted in a surprise win for Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Sairoon List, earned the most seats with 54. Hadi Al-Amiri’s Fatah List, which is supported mostly by the anti-Islamic State paramilitaries of the Hashd al-Sha’abi, came in second, while incumbent Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi came in a disappointing third. Rounding out the group were other Shia lists who supported former prime ministers Nuri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi and cleric Ammar al-Hakim. While Sunnis and smaller parties won in some areas, the the two largest Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PUK) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), appeared ready to play their traditional kingmaker role on the basis of their combined 43 seats. A week after the election, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) certified the results and the parties began to meet with one another to begin forming a government.

In the Kurdish-controlled north of the country, however, local parties immediately raised objections and alleged massive fraud on the part of the KDP and the PUK. Within days, they began filing legal objections in court and with the IHEC arguing that the results for the PUK and the KDP were suspiciously high. A group of six parties, led by the Movement for Change (Gorran), outright rejected the results, while the New Generation Movement publicly presented data that it said proved fraud. The KDP and the PUK categorically rejected these claims, implying that the smaller parties were disappointed with the outcome and were playing spoiler.

At issue is the apparent discrepancy between electronic tallies recorded by new ballot machines and those recorded on paper ballots. This election was the first in which Iraqis cast their ballots electronically, using machines that recorded votes using a biometic card and fingerprints. The data was then downloaded to flash drives and transported, along with the paper ballots, to Baghdad for calculation and confirmation of the results. The parties claiming fraud argued that the machines had been hacked, flash drives from certain polling stations had been confiscated, electronic votes were not recorded, and some voters had been prevented from casting votes for their preferred candidate.

Initial denials and half-measures by the IHEC, spurred the Iraqi Parliament to become get involved. At first, it passed a non-binding resolution criticizing the IHEC and demanding a manual recount of the paper ballots. Nevertheless, calls for stronger measures grew louder and, on June 6, parliament passed a binding bill that fully canceled the votes of IDPs, the diaspora, and the Kurdish security forces, instituted in a full manual recount of the paper ballots, eliminated electronic voting in future elections, and replaced the IHEC with a council of independent judges to oversee the recount. This was upheld by the courts, which said that the recount should go forward and began naming personnel to the new oversight panel. Others, such as Salim al-Jabouri, Speaker of the Council of Representatives, have called for the entire election to be annulled and re-run in the winter.

Adding to the chaos of the of the situation, on June 10, an IHEC warehouse in Baghdad that was being used to store election equipment and ballot boxes was deliberately set on fire. Shortly thereafter, three policemen and an employee of the IHEC were arrested for the arson. While it is not publicly clear what damage has been caused to ballots that would be part of any recount or on whose behalf the arsonists were working, the fire is nothing if not symbolic of the fact that Iraqi democracy is nowhere as resilient or mature as it appeared in the initial aftermath of the election.

Recounts are unlikely to fundamentally alter the dynamics of government formation: the prime minister will be a Shia from one of the largest parties, chosen with Sadr’s blessing. In fact, the Shia parties in the south appear to be plunging ahead with government formation despite the ongoing controversy. Any significant change in party vote totals will likely be contained to the Kurdish north for several reasons. First, this is where the most credible allegations of vote rigging occurred based and had the highest concentration of canceled results from individual polling stations. Second, parliament also annulled the votes of the Kurdish security forces and IDPs, which are predominantly located in Kurdish controlled areas. It is well known that the KDP and the PUK have institutional control over the Peshmerga [armed forces] and police and often deploy them for political purposes and IDPs are a vulnerable population, which make both voting blocs that are susceptible to irregularities. This effectively contains the damage for the winning Shia parties and limits legitimacy issues to the main Kurdish parties.

Nevertheless, if this was Iraq’s big democratic turning point, where “bread and butter” issues took precedence over narrow partisan or sectarian interests, it has hardly met its goal. It is unlikely that major reforms will be undertaken or future safeguards put in place and, as a result, Iraq’s democracy will remain stunted and vulnerable to future electoral malfeasance. By allowing normal government formation to proceed, the Iraqi government has lost an opportunity to correct a problem that will only grow with time.

Tags: elections, Iraq

About Author

Winthrop Rodgers

Winthrop Rodgers is the Senior Editor for NRT English in Sulaimani in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He holds a Master’s in International Relations from Queen’s University Belfast. These views are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of NRT. You can follow him on Twitter at @wrodgers2.