Mounting Accusations of Voter Fraud in Iraq's Elections
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Iraq's election commission is fighting back against claims that it failed to take account of grave violations in tightly contested provincial polls.
Last week it released final results from the January 31 election, confirming Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's allies came top in ten of 14 provinces where polls were held.
It also released details of electoral violations, confirming that none of the 20 cases of serious fraud it had investigated were severe enough to affect the overall outcome.
Undeterred and angry, some of Maliki's rivals have accused the commission of bias and are threatening to challenge its conclusions in court.
The Independent High Electoral Commission, IHEC, has said it does not tolerate any political influence or interference.
January's vote was the first in Iraq since 2005. It was also the first of several critical tests the election commission faces this year.
A vote on the withdrawal of U.S. troops is due in June, while district and national parliamentary elections are scheduled for July and December respectively.
Over the last few weeks, IWPR-trained journalists have gathered several reports of alleged violations, ranging from ballot boxes going temporarily missing to family members voting for absent relatives.
The strongest allegations of fraud so far have come from the Iraqiya list of former prime minister Ayad Allawi.
"The majority of violations occurred in Baghdad, Salahaddin and Anbar," said Ali Nesaif, a member of parliament with Allawi's list. "Some boxes were stolen from polling centers in Salahaddin as well as Diyala."
Iraqiya polled a very close second to a Sunni Islamist party in Salahaddin province.
"We are not satisfied with the final results -- particularly in Baghdad and Basra," Kadhim Turki, an Allawi ally, told IWPR.
The Iraqiya list came fourth in Baghdad, close behind a list loyal to anti-American Shia cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr. In Basra, Iraqiya polled fifth, again falling behind the Sadrists.
Jamal Betekh, a spokesman for Iraqiya, earlier this month accused "powerful parties" of rigging the votes. He told the Aswat al-Iraq news agency that IHEC was "anything but independent because it takes its orders from the state".
The Sadrist bloc has also voiced anger at the election commission's findings.
"We have been mistreated in this election. IHEC was not fair -- it was biased in favor of other lists," Amir Tahar al-Kinani, the leader of a list backing Sadr told IWPR.
He pointed out that initial results showed the party was in second place in Maysan province, followed by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, SIIC.
"In the final results, we dropped to third position, while SIIC took second place. How can that happen?" asked Kinani.
"Our bloc and SIIC won an approximately equal number of votes in Maysan -- yet we only got seven seats, while they got eight."
Kinani said his bloc had noted a suspicious drop in its share of votes in Baghdad after the final results were announced. He also accused IHEC of making late changes to the law that effectively raised the threshold for severe violations.
Kinani said the Sadrists had filed a judicial challenge to the election commission's findings.
A parliamentarian from Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya list, Khairullah al-Basri, also told IWPR it would appeal the poll results in court.
A number of other alliances have also reportedly complained of electoral fraud, though it is unclear if they too will now pursue a formal inquiry into the election commission's results.
Speaking before the final results were released, an election commission source told IWPR that parties had appealed initial results in several close races countrywide.
According to the source, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, initial results were contested by Maliki's alliance in Babil and Karbala.
A list led by Ali Hatim Sulaiman, a tribal leader, was challenging initial results in Anbar, said the source.
SIIC, which currently runs Baghdad's provincial council, had reportedly contested votes in the capital.
At a press conference in Baghdad on February 18, election commission officials said they were following up more than 1,000 complaints of irregularities, including 20 serious allegations of fraud.
IHEC official Karim al-Tamimi said the 20 serious irregularities "would not affect the results".
Hamdiya al-Husseini, an election commission official, told IWPR serious violations had been reported in Anbar, Diyala, Mosul, Muthana and in Baghdad's Resafa sector.
The alleged violations included ballot boxes that went missing and later reappeared during polling, said Husseini.
IHEC officials said they had also investigated complaints that parties had been campaigning at the gates of polling stations.
They said they had received reports of voters casting ballots on behalf of family members and of party officials interfering at the polling stations.
Husseini said there were "not many" reports of such violations and the commission did not deem them to be among the most serious irregularities.
"Many alliances have submitted complaints but the majority were general and did not provide proof or details," she said.
Sadr and Allawi loyalists claimed members of the security forces, who were allowed to cast their ballots early, voted twice. IHEC official Tamimi said six of the 20 serious irregularities had occurred during early voting.
Some voters said they witnessed fraud at the polls. Ali al-Ubedi, 19, a university student in Baghdad, said an election observer handed him a shred of paper as he walked to the voting booth and whispered in his ear to vote for his list.
Ubedi says he opened the paper in the booth and saw the number for an alliance contending seats in Baghdad's provincial council.
Abu Qasim, a 44-year-old government employee in Baghdad, said he saw an election observer issuing ten U.S. dollar mobile phone cards in front of a polling station.
"When I saw this, I returned home without voting because I realised that the country is ruined and the elections don't mean anything anymore," he said.
The most prevalent complaint -- that citizens could not vote because their names were missing from polling station registries -- was not considered a violation.
The problem is thought to have most affected Iraq's displaced -- people who fled their homes in the sectarian conflict that followed the last election in 2005.
Election commission officials said Iraqis were confused by new voter registration rules and either went to the wrong polling stations or had simply not registered to vote in this election.
Ballot officials have repeatedly insisted that the problem was not widespread, contrary to claims by voters, party leaders and some election observers.
Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, a non-profit body that monitors conflicts, told IWPR the "electoral commission has a vested interest in playing down the phenomenon."
"The matter should be investigated by an independent agency, which should make recommendations so as to prevent a similar problem in the parliamentary elections," he said.
IHEC official Husseini said the same voter registration system would be used in Iraqi elections scheduled for later this year.
Foreign observers have yet to comment on whether the IHEC investigated the fraud claims competently.
Robert Varsalone, Iraq chief of the U.S.-based International Republican Institute, said, "There is no such thing as a perfect election and … there probably were problems with this election."
But he said, the number of complaints was "rather low" and "it is the nature of the situation that those who come short allege fraud."
Interviewed before the full details of violations were released, Hiltermann stressed the need for the commission to be thorough and candid in its investigation.
"Failure to investigate and publish the results will undermine the credibility of this electoral contest and could prolong instability in a given governorate," he said.
IHEC official Tamimi told IWPR there had only been a slight delay in publishing the details of its investigation into violations. He said the details were released to official newspapers just before the weekend, which may have delayed their publication by a couple of days.
Tamimi said the IHEC was planning to work with the UN to assess its performance.
"We will improve on the positive points and deal with the negative points," which, he stressed, were not regarded as "faults."
Reported by IWPR-trained journalist Abeer Mohammed in Baghdad, Iraq editor Neil Arun in Erbil and an IWPR-trained journalist in Mosul, who is not identified because of security concerns.