Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Doubts Cast Over Kurdistan Vote

Officials claim only minimal fraud occurred during the referendum, but 99 per cent approval rates have raised eyebrows.
By Rebaz Mahmood

Electoral officials in Erbil and Sulaimaniyah have denied allegations of widespread fraud during the recent constitutional referendum, contradicting claims by observers and poll workers that there were grave procedural violations in the Kurdish region.


The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq, IECI, said that 99 per cent of voters in the three Kurdish provinces – Dahuk, Erbil and Sulaimaniyah – voted in favour of the constitution, which was officially approved this week. Seventy-nine per cent of voters across Iraq accepted the charter.


In the majority Kurdish regions in northern Iraq, party officials who drafted the constitution cheered the results while many residents rolled their eyes as the figures were released. The commission will outline any voting irregularities on October 27.


Karwan Mehdi, an election monitor in Erbil, has already made up his mind, “The [final] figures were fabricated. Of course turnout was smaller than they declared and there were fewer yes votes than they announced.”


Mehdi’s concerns echoed those of several monitors, electoral staff members and citizens interviewed by IWPR who witnessed – and in some cases practiced - fraud first-hand.


Ako Khalil managed a polling station in Sulaimaniyah. He said that election observers representing the Kurdistan Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party “told us that because the turnout was low and the situation was critical for Kurds, we should put some more yes votes into the ballot boxes. I didn’t let them do that at my polling station. But it was obvious that they did so at others”.


Elsewhere, an electoral commission member in Sulaimaniyah who asked to remain anonymous said he and others at the voting centre stuffed ballot boxes when too few people showed up, “We filled in voting forms and stuffed them in the ballot boxes. We had nothing to do and we were tired.”


Kocher Ali, a monitor with the Rozh network, was turned away when he tried to monitor the referendum at a preparatory school in Sulaimaniyah. He was told only that only political party observers were allowed in. The school was located directly across from Sulaimaniyah’s electoral commission office.


Also in Sulaimaniyah, a 27-year-old man who did not want to be identified, said he voted on behalf of his four brothers who live outside Iraq by taking their identification cards to polling stations. “I knew the staff at the polling stations, so they allowed me to vote for them,” he said.


Karwan Mahdi Osman, leader of a monitoring team in Erbil, said security personnel dressed in civilian clothing arrived at a preparatory school in the Mantkawa neighbourhood with ink-stained fingers - indicating they had already cast their ballots - and voted again.


At a girls’ school used as a polling station in Erbil, an official told IWPR that voters who were not registered to vote there had been allowed to cast their ballots. She admitted she had "made a personal decision to turn a blind eye to some people [who voted without being registered] like the elderly and sick”.


These stories, however, were in sharp contrast to accounts by most election officials.


Kamal Ghambar, director of IECI’s Erbil office, rejected claims that serious fraud occurred in the province or that turnout was low.


He said most of the irregularities involved errors on the voter registration lists sent from Baghdad, which delayed voting at the polls early on referendum day.


Hama-Salih Hama-Amin, the IECI director in Sulaimaniyah, said most of the problems in his province were of a similar nature.


“I was contacted only twice from voting centres where party representative wanted to illegally stuff ballot boxes with yes votes,” said Hama-Amin. “We solved it quickly and did not allow it to happen.”


Voting centres were not packed for the referendum as they had been during the January parliamentary election, indicating that voter apathy was as high as turnout.


Erbil and Sulaimaniyah residents were particularly sceptical of the IECI’s turnout figures of 85 per cent in Dahuk, 90 per cent in Erbil and 75 per cent in Sulaimaniyah.


International monitors also raised concerns, and insisted that a recount should be held, overseen by the United Nations. According to Ghambar, the recount team spent two days in Erbil and found no significant cases of fraud.


However, Karwan Mehdi notes that the monitors recounted only a sample of the vote, and not all the ballots, leaving them with an incomplete picture.


Hazhar Jameel, a monitor with Kurdistan Children’s Nest, a non-government group in Sulaimaniyah, said his monitors did not report significant violations in the province. He said voter approval of the constitution was high, but he agreed turnout was low.


Ata Muhammed, a monitor in Sulaimaniyah with the Civil Development Organisation, which had 730 monitors in Sulaimaniyah, Kirkuk, Diyala and Salahaddin, agreed that most people had supported the constitution.


"Most of the voters voted yes. Few of those who wanted to vote no actually went to the polls," he said.


Rebaz Mahmood is an IWPR trainee journalist in Sulaimaniyah. IWPR trainee journalist Talar Nadir in Sulaimaniyah also contributed to this report.