Saturday,21 April, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)
Saturday,21 April, 2018
Issue 1389, (12 - 18 April 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Fear of vote fraud in Iraq

Graft and fear of irregularities cloud hopes for Iraq’s election, writes Salah Nasrawi

 

Fear of vote fraud in Iraq
Fear of vote fraud in Iraq

In the days leading up to Iraq’s contentious parliamentary elections in May one might expect to see candidates tossing bags of foodstuffs from pickup trucks and aides handing out free mobile credit cards.

Such methods to sway reluctant voters have been used before by Iraq’s ruling elites who are running for re-election for the country’s fifth national parliament since the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Iraqis head to the ballot boxes on 12 May to elect a new parliament with bleak electoral prospects. The beleaguered nation faces a woeful set of choices, as its communities remain sharply divided on ethnic and sectarian lines.

With the ruling Shia alliance in disarray, Arab Sunni blocs disorganised, and Kurdish parties in tatters, next month’s elections are already being watched as a test of whether a new parliament and government can bring peace, stability and cohesion to the country.

The country’s Independent Higher Electoral Commission (IHEC) endorsed the lists of candidates for the upcoming parliamentary vote on 5 April. The commission said in a statement that it had approved 6,986 candidates and excluded some 337 others on the grounds that they are Saddam loyalists.

Some 220 candidates were replaced by their lists and 54 others withdrew their nominations as the commission gave the blocs one week’s notice to provide the rest of the replacements.

Iraqi law bans senior members of Saddam’s former ruling Baath Party and officials who belonged to his notorious security and intelligence apparatus from joining the government or the parliament.

But as the upcoming polls draw closer, attempts at swaying voters that include intimidation and bribery are on the increase and are making alarm bells ring over the dire state of Iraq’s fragile democratic process.

The fierce fight for seats in the country’s House of Representatives and the political survival of the entrenched political class have also raised fears of possible electoral irregularities and fraud.

The vote is seen as a referendum on the country’s political elites who face charges of graft and inefficiency, and it is crucial to restoring the country’s stability following the war to drive the Islamic State (IS) terror group out from vast areas of Iraq.

Voters in Iraq’s previous elections have been left disappointed after politicians failed to fulfil their promises to reform and end the epidemic corruption in the country.

With election season now in full swing, Iraqi political blocs and candidates are resorting to dubious tricks to persuade voters to turn out in the elections. While performing acrobatic acts of posturing remain part of the campaign chicanery, pandering to the voters is also used by candidates to get elected.

Among the methods that Iraqi media and social networks are reporting as being used to influence undecided voters in the upcoming elections are for the country’s ruling parties to manipulate the voting system and in particular to try to influence the IHEC.

Many groups have criticised the composition of the commission and accused its members of being affiliated to the main ruling factions. They fear that a biased Commission will not guarantee fair and efficient balloting.

What worries smaller groups is that the commission has also halted its biometric registration procedures for voters, a process which many hoped could help ensure accurate and reliable results.

In addition, unconfirmed reports have suggested that the commission may also suspend an electronic registration and counting system that could alter the vote during the counting process and allow tampering with the results.

Several politicians including former prime minister Ayad Allawi and leader of the Hikma Trend Ammar Al-Hakim have complained about possible electoral fraud and warned of dire consequences to come.

Both have called on the commission to work in a more professional way.

In past elections, candidates sometimes complained of rigging or irregularities in the polls through ballot-stuffing, spoiling ballots, adding extra marks or filling in leftover ballot papers.

Damaging the barcodes on tally sheets or tampering with some of the 59,000 machines that will be distributed to polling stations could also change the recording of the voting and influence the results.

However, Commission Spokesman Kareem Al-Timimi said on Saturday that some of the country’s political factions have been pushing to abolish the electronic voting system and resort to a manual system instead. He denied that there were plans to abolish the electronic system.

Another common technique that could be used to subvert the election results is intimidation or buying votes. The Iraqi Human Rights Observatory, a NGO, reported this week that candidates had been paying as much as $100 to voters to buy their registration cards.

The London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper reported on Saturday that some candidates in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul had been offering $5 to voters for their votes in a city still reeling as a result of the destruction and instability caused by the war on IS.

In some cases, candidates have been distributing food baskets containing cooking oil, sugar and rice to voters in camps for displaced persons and to desperate people in low-income areas.

While bribery has long been commonplace in Iraq, the level of cheating in this election has been unprecedented and could be one of the highest anywhere in the world. Iraqi lawmakers are the highest paid in any parliament in the world and probably also the most corrupt as they can afford to pay extravagant bribes.

Candidates who are members of the ruling parties are offering voters applications for free plots of land and promises of government jobs in return for their ballot papers.

Al-Abadi himself has ordered the country’s municipalities to quickly pave roads after years of neglect in order to win votes in the country’s upcoming elections.

Religious symbols are being widely used to entice voters to cast their ballots for religious candidates. Some candidates have been transporting voters to Shia holy shrines by bus and making them swear to vote for them.

“If you vote [for me], you are voting for the strong and the honest,” Muwaffak Al-Rubaie, an Iraqi Shia politician, told the audience during a television talk show in Iraq last week, quoting a classical Arabic saying about the Prophet Mohamed.

Fear of rigging the voting outside Iraq is another serious issue, as polling stations for millions of Iraqis in the diaspora lack proper methods of registration and counting, and they will be controlled by Iraqi embassies and branches of the ruling political parties abroad.

All this may sound like simply more political drama, but these are all real issues that Iraqis will face during the upcoming general elections, as reports published in recent weeks have revealed.

The election campaigns paint a dire picture of a lack of trust in the democratic process in the country as Iraq looks set for more instability, with communal divisions deepening and IS returning to guerrilla warfare in many parts of Iraq.

At the heart of the national debate today in Iraq is a dilemma shared by every Iraqi voter critical of the ruling cliques. Voters can see little hope of next month’s elections offering real change, and if so, perhaps nobody will particularly care about what it is called election.

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