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Election Commission Role Attacked

But it insists its neutral, professional and will investigate all complaints thoroughly. By IWPR-trained reporters

Iraq's election commission has defended itself against criticism from politicians, voters and monitors for its handling of this week’s parliamentary vote.

The Independent High Electoral Commission, IHEC, has been named in complaints ranging in severity from political bias to poor performance.

The commission insists that it is neutral and is investigating scores of voting irregularities, although they say the complaints are not substantial enough to alter preliminary results.

Lawmakers from across Iraq's political spectrum have come forward with allegations about the commission’s effectiveness. Shortly after the polls closed on March 7, former prime minister Iyad Allawi accused the IHEC of possible fraud, warning reporters that the electoral commission's performance could have a direct affect on the formation of the next coalition government.

"The IHEC was very apathetic in this election and was not able to create a suitable atmosphere for the voters in the poll stations. It has many holes. It is very easy to exploit them for rigging the election," Zhala Naftchy, a candidate running on the Iraqiya List headed by Allawi, said.

Politicians have also questioned both the commission’s neutrality and credibility in past elections.

“We said many times that the IHEC is not independent, it’s biased, and we filed many complaints about this,” Bashir Muhamad, head of the election bureau of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, said.

However, the IHEC, praised by United Nations envoy to Iraq Ad Melkert for a successful voting day which saw 62 per cent voter turnout, denied any charges of bias.

“We are an independent body and no one can influence us,” the commission’s chief spokesman, Abdulraham Khalifa, said. “There are two types of people accusing the IHEC: first, those who don’t know about our regulations and, second, those who lose the election. It’s easy for Iraqi political parties to blame the IHEC for their losses.”

Funded by the Iraqi government and the UN, the IHEC was charged with registering nearly 19 million voters, producing ballots, maintaining stability at the polls and counting the results.

Khalifa said the commission received 200 million US dollars from the Iraqi government to run the nationwide election. The IHEC employed 300,000 elections workers at 50,000 polling stations.

The IHEC was formed in 2004 as an independent election commission by the Coalition Provincial Authority, the US-led ruling body in Iraq after the 2003 invasion. In 2007, the law governing the commission was amended by the Iraqi parliament to give more power to the IHEC to manage national and regional elections.

Last year, the Iraqi parliament questioned IHEC chief commissioner Faraj al-Haidari in a special session over irregularities in the 2009 provincial election. Dozens of lawmakers called for Haidari's removal and the formation of a new state election commission, but the matter was never put to a vote.

IHEC commissioner Sardar Abdul-Karim said the commission had received approximately 1,000 complaints, including 400 from voting centres outside Iraq, but that less than one per cent were being investigated as serious violations that could cause ballots to be disqualified.

According to IHEC spokesman Qasim al-Aboudi, some of the complaints accuse the commission of failing to prepare properly for the election and not being sufficiently organised.

"These complaints were filed by the political parties and candidates right after the election. The election law gives 48 hours to receive complaints after the end of election day," Aboudi said. "IHEC’s legal department has started to classify complaints according to importance and severity. The commission will handle them with complete seriousness under the supervision of an international team."

In the disputed province of Kirkuk, which has not participated in an election in five years, the head of the KurdistanilList blamed the commission for being poorly organised.

"They had plenty of time to prepare for this election, but in the end it was the voter who suffered from the commission’s problems," Najmaldin Karim, a candidate with the Kurdistani list, said.

Election watchdog NGOs reported a wide range of violations occurring inside and outside polling stations. Across Iraq, observers documented cases of illegal campaigning, the display of party slogans near polling sites and the barring of voters from specific ballot boxes.

In a statement, Ein (Eye), an elections monitoring network, said some polling stations used low-quality ink that could be washed off voters’ fingers.

Security at ballot boxes was also questioned by monitors. The elections commission worked with security forces to maintain stability at the 50,000 stations nationwide. Nearly one million security personnel were deployed, according to the government.

"Some of our observers were beaten in Musayib district in Babel province. In addition, one of our observers was arrested in Mosul. A number of our observers were not allowed to get in the polling station in Anbar province due to security pretexts," Yasamin al-Aboudi, spokesman of the Tammuz election monitoring network, said.

The most common and widespread complaint was voters not finding their names on the voting register at their assigned polling station, Aboudi told IWPR.

"I am very upset my name was not on the list. I missed this election and it is a very vital time to determine the future of my city," said Aydin Hadi, 31, a state employee in Basra.

Khalifa conceded that there were some problems with registration but put the blame squarely on the voters.

“Most of those people who missed the election did so because it was their fault. They were careless; they should have gone and checked the their names before election day,” Khalifa said.

“In every election process the IHEC faced many complaints for its irregularities," said Hogar Chato, spokesman of the Shams election monitoring group. "Some problems are related to the complex situation in Iraq and all the rest are the IHEC’s fault.”

Despite the usual barrage of complaints and criticism, IHEC spokesman Aboudi continued to defend the commission's commitment to electoral accountability.

"Results will be announced; every complaint will be handled, and an action will be taken according to the verdict," he said.

IWPR-trained journalists Ali Kareem, Samah Samad, Ali Abu Iraq and Aland Mahwy contributed to this report from Baghdad, Kirkuk, Basra and Sulaimaniyah respectively.
IWPR local editor Hemin H Lihony contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah.