Election Commission Under Fire

Body's neutrality challenged following hard-fought Kurdish election.

Election Commission Under Fire

Body's neutrality challenged following hard-fought Kurdish election.

Thursday, 13 August, 2009
Iraqi Kurdistan’s leading opposition alliance is challenging the credibility and independence of the country’s election commission following a hard-fought contest that some coalitions say was marred by fraud.



Change, the region’s chief opposition group, says it will take the Independent High Electoral Commission, IHEC, to court and appeal to Iraq’s parliament to change the system for appointing commissioners.



Change says the commission, which was created in 2007 and is run by political appointees, helped facilitate fraud in favour of incumbents and failed to investigate thoroughly voting irregularities in the July 25 election.



Commission officials deny the allegations. "The commission has kept its impartiality and independence,” IHEC chief Faraj Haideri told a news conference last month.



If it follows through on its threats, the Kurdish opposition, which has consistently and noisily complained about the commission, could play a part in the first substantial challenge to Iraq’s election body.



IHEC is also facing mounting pressure from the Iraqi parliament. Seventy deputies have signed a petition to question IHEC officials about alleged violations by the commission, including accusations of fraud raised during the January 2009 provincial council elections, member of parliament Basim Sharif told IWPR.



Iraqi Kurdistan’s ruling coalition won a reduced majority in parliament in last month’s poll with 59 of the 100 elected seats, down from 78 in the previous parliament.



The newly-formed Change list gained 25 seats, an unprecedented win for an opposition group in Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet Change and Service and Reform, a leftist-Islamist opposition list which captured 13 seats, say that widespread fraud overshadowed the election.



IHEC’s probes into voting irregularities delayed the final results by nearly two weeks but did not substantially affect the outcome. Both Change and Service and Reform say they accept the results.



However, Change says it will challenge the commission’s investigations and its independence in a Kurdish court and in Iraq’s parliament.



The list is filing a lawsuit against the commission this week to make public its grievances against the body, senior Change official Mohamed Tofiq told IWPR. He said the list believed it should have won 30 to 35 seats.



“We are not happy with the results,” Tofiq said. “We have filed many complaints for which we have not received any answers.”



He said Change had accepted the results because it did not “want to create a problem or tension”.



Change will also argue before the Iraqi parliament for a review of the way IHEC commissioners are chosen, ahead of a nationwide parliamentary election in January.



“For future elections … something must be done about IHEC,” Tofiq said.



Change and other opposition Kurdish parties say IHEC is not independent, citing in part the political affiliations of the body’s nine commissioners who oversee the elections.



The commission is led by Faraj Haideri, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, which, with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, has ruled Iraqi Kurdistan for decades.



Some Shia and secular leaders also briefly attacked IHEC’s credibility following Iraq’s provincial council election in January. In that poll, which excluded the three provinces that make up Kurdistan, prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s coalition made significant gains.



IHEC officials deny allegations that the body is not neutral.



“If there was any bias, it would have been clear from the [Kurdish election] results,” said Hakim Sardar, a member of the election commission’s Erbil board.



“Honestly, it wasn’t important to us which coalition would win the elections. For us, it was the process that was important,” Sardar said.



“We cannot satisfy everyone,” he added. “Many times when a political entity does not reach its goals it thinks that raising these issues is easier than evaluating its strategies.”



A spokesman for Sun, an independent body that monitored the Kurdish election, said there was no evidence that IHEC had been biased or that it had failed to take action over the violations.



“It’s not in IHEC’s interest to handle the rigging accusations unprofessionally,” Hogar Chato said. “Credibility is essential for IHEC. It definitely needs the trust of the voter, the citizen and the political blocs.”



Change is filing dozens of grievances against IHEC. For instance, it accuses the commission of distributing 180,000 special registration forms that it says enabled some voters to cast their ballots twice. According to the opposition list, complaint forms were not provided in several polling stations, while the commission’s decision to extend voting by an hour allowed parties to appropriate blank ballots.



Change also maintains that the commission has not punished top Kurdish leaders for violating elections regulations, citing PUK media reports that Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, who leads the party, gave guns and cash to Kurdish citizens during the campaign.



Fazil Omar, spokesman for the Kurdistani alliance that groups the PUK and KDP, said the donations did not violate elections rules. He claimed Change, which was born as a breakaway PUK faction, was making politically motivated accusations and that the group “is bent on revenge”.



Legal analysts say complaints against IHEC are less likely to be considered by the courts than parliament, which oversees the commission.



Change lawyer Mariwan Perwiz Mariwani said he expects the Kurdish court to dismiss the case, claiming that judges are loyal to the ruling parties. He said Change expects to have a more receptive audience in Iraq’s parliament.



Reported by IWPR-trained journalist Shorish Khalid in Sulaimaniyah. IWPR Iraq editor Tiare Rath and staffers Nabaz Jalal and Mohammed Furat contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah and Erbil.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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