Court Blow to Kurdish Poll Fraud Claims

Setback for opposition groups in row over alleged election violations, tracked closely by IWPR reporters after historic poll.

Court Blow to Kurdish Poll Fraud Claims

Setback for opposition groups in row over alleged election violations, tracked closely by IWPR reporters after historic poll.

A legal challenge to the results of Iraqi Kurdistan’s hard-fought election has been shot down despite intense controversy over alleged poll violations, reported in detail by IWPR-trained journalists throughout the region.

A three-member judicial panel, whose decisions cannot be appealed, turned down complaints of violations because of lack of evidence, according to a statement issued earlier this week by Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission, IHEC.

The panel’s decision to accept the results of last month’s presidential and parliamentary election is a setback for leading opposition coalitions who had wanted an investigation into reports of serious irregularities.

The election in the region was largely peaceful. However, final results were delayed because of fraud claims and questions about the election commission’s neutrality have been raised.

At least one opposition group is now planning to raise its complaints about the Kurdish poll with the parliament in Baghdad. While the appeal will not have any legal impact, it is likely to renew calls by Iraqi members of parliament for reform of the IHEC. (See Election Commission Under Fire, ICR No. 300, 12-Aug-09)

The election was considered historic, with two top opposition coalitions – Change and the leftist-Islamist Service and Reform – making substantial gains. The coalitions accepted the final results but asked the region’s court to review a plethora of complaints, including allegations of voter fraud and reports that party observers had been barred from polling stations.

They questioned the election commission’s independence, claiming that the body failed to penalise the ruling parties for voting irregularities and had neglected to distribute electoral complaints forms in some stations.

IHEC announced the final results of the parliamentary and presidential election nearly two weeks after the July 25 poll. The commission said it delayed the results in order to investigate claims of voting irregularities, but concluded that the complaints had little impact on the results.

The commission has yet to release its final report on violations of poll regulations. But elections commissioner Hindren Mohammed told IWPR that the elections “were well-managed and fair".

Opposition lists told IWPR they expected the cases would be rejected before filing their appeals, claiming the judiciary is not independent of the region’s parties which have run Iraqi Kurdistan for decades. The electoral judicial panel is part of the region’s supreme court.

The supreme court did not respond to several requests for comment.

The incumbent Kurdistani list won 59 seats in the semi-autonomous region’s 111-seat parliament. The list combines the region’s two most powerful parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK.

The election gave Change 25 seats and Service and Reform 13 seats - the strongest showing by opposition groups since Iraqi Kurdistan held its first poll in 1992.

The opposition alliances accused the incumbent Kurdistani list of committing widespread voting fraud in the central and western provinces of Erbil and Duhok.

In the election for the regional presidency on the same day, Massoud Barzani, a candidate for the Kurdistani list, was re-elected with 70 per cent of the vote.

Govand Baban, a lawyer for the Change list, said the judiciary panel rejected appeals to investigate voting irregularities in part because the elections commission has not issued its final decisions on the claims.

Opposition groups said the complaints they filed with the commission included allegations that ballot boxes were stuffed, voters cast ballots twice and that the ruling parties used their power and influence to flagrantly violate Iraq’s elections regulations.

They blamed the elections commission for facilitating fraud and for failing to investigate claims of violations. The groups said they would take their complaints to Iraq’s parliament.

Seventy Iraqi members of parliament last week called for the commission to be investigated for not following procedures during the provincial council elections in January.

IHEC has given few details about its investigations in the Iraqi Kurdistan election. The commission threw out 40 of the region’s 10,600 ballot boxes, or about 12,000 votes, for having too many ballots, said Hakim Sardar, an elections commissioner.

Ahead of the results, the commission had said it was investigating complaints in 300 ballot boxes.

Another elections commissioner, Hamdiya Husseini, said IHEC investigated about 700 complaints, including allegations that voters cast ballots after the polls closed and that large groups of people had entered polling stations who were not listed on the voter registrar.

IHEC has said it will fine some lists for breaking elections regulations but has not provided any details.

Election observers and the two leading opposition coalitions noted that voter turnout was especially high in the late afternoon and during the extended hour of voting.

Elections officials said they decided to keep polls open an hour longer than originally scheduled because of the heat that may have deterred some people from voting earlier in the day.

Opposition groups claimed that during the extended polling period, the Kurdistani list brought in loyalists to vote in place of registered voters who had not yet cast their ballots.

Change, which disputed votes in Erbil and Duhok, accused the ruling parties of shuttling supporters between polling stations to cast fraudulent ballots during the extended voting hour, artificially driving up turnout in the provinces of Erbil and Duhok.

Polling station workers did not check voter identifications, Change claimed, and military and security personnel who had voted earlier in the week cast ballots again during the general election.

The commission reported that total voter turnout was 79 per cent.

Bashir Mohammed, a senior Kurdistan Islamic Union official overseeing elections for the party, said Service and Reform observers noted an increase in “pressure, violations and fraud” in the late afternoon and during the extended voting hour.

“A lot of fraud was committed that violated IHEC rules,” he said. “The main problem was the parties interfered at the polling stations and IHEC employees did not abide by the commission’s rules.”

Fazil Omar, spokesman for the Kurdistani list, strongly denied that either the PUK or KDP were involved in election fraud. “They have put aside their struggle as revolutionaries in the mountains [against Saddam Hussein’s regime] to ensure that democracy and elections are legitimate,” he insisted.

Omar said the Kurdistani list “see the process as very successful”.

Outgoing Kurdistan parliamentary speaker Adnan Mufti told IWPR that the elections would have been re-held if IHEC and the United Nations determined there was substantial fraud.

According to reports by the UN mission in Iraq, UNAMI, the election was overseen by 10,700 Iraqi observers, 320 international monitors and 27,200 party observers.

Independent monitors and party observers reported anecdotal cases of serious voting irregularities.

In Duhok and Chamchamal, a town in Sulaimaniyah province, independent monitors and opposition party observers claimed they were shut out of polling stations for at least half the day.

Military, security forces and hospital patients and staff voted two days before the general election. Observers in Duhok, a province dominated by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said there were many reports of violations in hospitals.

Hussein Ibrahim, an international observer from the Arab League who monitored the election in Duhok, said he noticed many people were admitted to hospital who “did not look sick at all. I knew they were not ill”.

Yet Ibrahim said that the election was “very good. We didn’t expect it to go so well in a place controlled by only one party”.

Hogar Chato, a spokesman for Sun, a network of 2,500 independent monitors, agreed that the election was not seriously tarnished by fraud.

“A number of irregularities were definitely reported but the accusations of systematic fraud were baseless,” he said. “For example, voters were given lifts by certain parties to help them reach polling stations. This is certain but what was not confirmed was whether voters voted more than one time … This was merely an accusation, not a fact.”

But other independent monitors said fraud was substantial. Jabar Amin, an international monitor with the Swedish Green Party, reported that monitors believed “many people voted more than once”, particularly after 4 pm.

Iraqi voters dip their finger in ink in order to prevent them from voting twice. Amin asserted that the ink “was easily washed off”.

IHEC said it had dismissed 415 claims because they were not filed according to proper procedures or lacked evidence.

One polling station worker in Erbil who requested anonymity said he was called in for an investigation after an observer claimed voters cast ballots without showing identification and misused change-of-address forms.

IHEC investigators reviewed the station’s records for three hours but could not find anything, he said. The observer ultimately admitted that his party was seeking to nullify votes in the station because it was concerned about low voter turnout among its party supporters there.

Service and Reform spokesman Bashir Mohammed said the elections process “did not live up to our hopes and expectations”.

He said the coalition wanted to ensure that voting irregularities are not repeated in future elections.

“All of the political entities are responsible for protecting the democratic experiment in Kurdistan,” he said. “Elections are an important principle of democracy.”

IWPR-trained journalist Najeeba Mohammed reported from Erbil. IWPR Iraq editor Tiare Rath and editorial staffers Hogar Hasan and Nabaz Jalal contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah and Erbil. IWPR trained-journalists Ako Mohammed Mustafa and Niwar Mohammed contributed from Chamchamal and Duhok.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
Support our journalists