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Kurds Concerned About Fraud

Voters sceptical despite an increase in monitors and promises from Kurdish leaders of clean elections.
By Talar Nadir
The celebrations have already begun. From 8 am until nearly midnight all this week, cheering and drumming can be heard in this Kurdish city in northeastern Iraq. During the day, schoolchildren draped in Kurdish flags march through the streets chanting, while at night young men race cars adorned with Kurdish stickers and flags.



The mood is equally upbeat among members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK - the main party in Sulaimaniyah, which is running as part of the Kurdistan Alliance. Few expect that any of the 19 political coalitions competing with the alliance will draw support away from it here in Sulaimaniyah, leading to a sense of victory among the party faithful even though Iraqis don’t got to the polls until December 15.



Some voters, however, are feeling distinctly less cheerful. Many here do not believe the January parliamentary election and the October constitutional referendum were really fair, and question whether this poll will also be marred by fraud.



"A relative of mine who was a monitor told me that votes were cast for people who had not participated in the referendum," said Mustafa Fatih, a 59-year-old taxi driver who did not vote in October. "This time, I will vote because I don't want the people working at the polling station to fill in my ballot."



The number of independent monitors in Sulaimaniyah has increased from 1,340 for the October referendum to about 3,020 for this week's election. Agents monitoring for political parties are 15,000 in number against approximately 9,000, according to the electoral commission in Sulaimaniyah. Few international monitors will watch the election, however, because of safety concerns.



Sartip Ali Muhammed, deputy director of the electoral monitoring Rozh network, said the October referendum was cleaner than the January elections, but there were still violations including "mass cases" of people casting ballots on behalf of others.



"Commission employees turned blind eye on extra votes, and party agents have tried to commit irregularities," said Jwan Bahadin, coordinator for the Election Information Network in the Kurdistan region.



She said her network, which contains several non-governmental organiations, will have 20,000 monitors dispatched throughout the country - more than double the 9,000 it had in the referendum.



But she maintained, "No election is 100 per cent pure, and violations will occur."



The reports of fraud in past polls did not reflect well on the Independent Electoral Commission in Iraq. But people in Sulaimaniyah were angrier at the main Kurdish parties, the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which runs the western portion of the Kurdish region.



The PUK has since tried to win back voter trust in Sulaimaniyah province by promising to shake up its administration and rid the government of corruption. While the parties still have many supporters, another tainted poll could further erode the public's trust.



"I've warned our supporters not to commit any violations, because we want to have a clear and transparent election," said Barham Salih, a senior PUK official who heads the Kurdistan Alliance in Sulaimaniyah province.



But party loyalty - and loyalty to Iraq's historically oppressed Kurdish people - remains strong among many in Sulaimaniyah. In some cases, it is stronger than democracy.



"I hope majority of the votes will go for the Kurds," said Saeed Maulood, a 35-year-old day labourer. "I don't care if they fill in ballots or commit fraud. I will vote ten times if I can."



Bahman Hussein, a politburo member of the Kurdistan Toilers' Party, which is running as part of the Kurdistan Alliance, said political parties and their supporters have interfered in the polls – but insisted the electoral commission was to blame.



"The commission has not been able to place independent people in charge of the ballot boxes, or find a mechanism to prevent fraud," he said.



Latif Mustafa, a lawyer from the election commission, said any monitor or commission worker who does not follow procedures will not be paid and will face prosecution.



But civil servants in particular remain wary. Some ministries and security officials in Sulaimaniyah province interrogated and in some cases reprimanded civil servants and police officers for not voting in the constitutional referendum. The former culture minister, Fatah Zakhoyee, claimed he was dismissed because he stayed away from the polls.



"I don't trust the election, but I will vote because I don't want to create any problems and I don't want to be fired," said one civil servant in Sulaimaniyah.



Talar Nadir is an IWPR trainee journalist in Sulaimaniyah.

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