Thursday,19 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)
Thursday,19 October, 2017
Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Why Iraq’s elections matter

Peace, stability and the lofty goal of keeping the country together are at stake in next year’s Iraqi elections, writes Salah Nasrawi

 

Why Iraq’s elections matter
Why Iraq’s elections matter

There was little cause for surprise at the brawl in the Iraqi parliament last month over a vote to choose new commissioners for the country’s elections panel that is supposed to oversee next year’s crucial vote to elect a new House of Representatives and local councils.

With the ruling Shia alliance in tatters, the country’s Arab Sunni blocs reorganising, and ethnic Kurds intent on leaving Iraq, next year elections are already being watched as a test of where the country is headed.

They are also important for Middle Eastern stability, as neighbouring countries will remain focused on the crisis in Iraq out of fears of the regional ramifications of any political vacuum in the embattled nation.

Demands for electoral reform in Iraq have escalated in recent months. Supporters of prominent Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr have been demonstrating nationwide against the country’s elections law that they say is tailored for Iraq’s leading parties that are accused of corruption and nepotism.

However, despite mounting opposition to the rules the parliament last month endorsed provisions in a bill that maintained a controversial seat-allocation system that favours large blocs at the expense of smaller parties.

The bill has also triggered bickering over the composition of the new electoral commission, whose members, opposition lawmakers say, are like their predecessors, are affiliated to the big political parties.

The dispute simmered into a brawl when speaker Saleem Al-Jibouri asked the parliament to vote on the new members of the High Independent Electoral Commission (HIEC) amid protests from opposition MPs who have accused the major political blocs of nominating candidates without consultation.

The term of the current commissioners ends this month, and the failure of the parliament to choose a new panel threatens to derail Iraq’s fragile political process and its dysfunctional government system.

The root of Iraq’s electoral crisis lies in the political chaos that has been the hallmark of the country since the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003.

Despite promises of democratisation, little has changed for more than 14 years as the country has remained in the grip of an established oligarchy that many believe has resorted to electoral irregularities and even fraud to stay in power.

In the previous four polls since Saddam’s ouster talk of fraud was common despite bragging by US and Iraqi officials about free elections and the trumpeting of post-Saddam democracy.

In the last elections in 2014, for example, many complaints were made about alleged electoral irregularities and fraud committed during the polling process and on polling day itself.

Many groups complained about fraud in favour of candidates supported by former prime minister Nouri Al-Maliki who was seeking a third term in office amid fierce opposition.

Another complaint was about the Al-Maliki government’s direct or procedural interference in the elections. More common irregularities included the unfair use of state resources and bribery to induce voters.

Reported complaints also included ballot stuffing, intimidation, stealing or destroying ballot boxes and threatening election officials. There were numerous reports of Al-Maliki using the soaring violence that has hit Iraq to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of eligible voters in troubled areas.

Among the irregularities that were reported were assisting illiterate voters to cast their ballots. In some cases it was reported that literate people were told to claim they were illiterate so that they could be assisted by Al-Maliki’s staff.

The Iraqi media noted that in many polling stations ballots marked in favour of Al-Maliki’s candidates were available in abundance.

Other serious allegations of fraud by the ruling Al-Maliki bloc included the forcing of military and security personnel to vote for Al-Maliki’s list. More members of the security forces were allegedly registered to vote than were on the state payroll.

But the main bone of contention has been about the HIEC, which was slammed in the earlier elections for being “biased” and unqualified to run elections in line with international standards.

Following the announcement of the results, many political leaders accused the HIEC of tampering with ballot boxes. They also complained about delays in releasing the results, which they said had probably been used to change them.

As a result, allegations of irregularities and vote-rigging cast shadows over the legitimacy of the resulting parliament and further worsened the political ructions and sectarian violence in the country.

The present dispute over the elections bill and the composition of the new electoral commission has underscored the well-placed fear of opposition groups that altering the election rules will mean deterring opposition and independent candidates and manipulating constituencies.

It has been widely hoped that the 2018 elections in Iraq will bring much-needed peace and stability to the war-battered country in order to consolidate the recent successes of the security forces against the Islamic State (IS) terror group.

Indeed, next year’s elections are about much more than a new national parliament and new provincial councils. They are also a referendum on the future of Iraq and whether it can be a truly democratic and united nation or whether it will plunge further into disarray.

Unfortunately, the endorsement of controversial polling procedures by the parliament will likely reproduce the poorly run political system that has stalled Iraq over the last 14 years and continues to push it to the edge.

Even if the failure to hold free and fair elections does not land Iraq and the wider region into serious new conflict or further stagnation, its effect on the trajectory of national healing and rebuilding following the defeat of IS could be very substantial.

Elections that recycle the country’s corrupt and inefficient political class may kick into reverse a process of stabilisation that has already stalled. This will continue to produce a sectarian wasteland and give IS terrorists a golden opportunity to make a come-back.

Bitter elections in Iraq producing another troubled parliament will increase the extent to which instability in the country will impact the fragile regional order, increasing the risk of further conflict.

A new round of political chaos in Iraq will destroy opportunities for de-escalation in the Middle East that have recently emerged amid signs of a new pattern of pragmatic engagement to resolve or manage regional conflicts.

As things stand, Iraq’s ruling cliques seem unwilling to heed demands for a more democratic elections process that they fear will end their control of the country.

One certainty, however, is that if the political stagnation in the country continues, the catalyst of the process will not be simple or pretty and will be renewed violence and further instability.

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