Iraq’s democracy burns in the fires of voter fraud allegations

Meddling with an already unstable electoral system could lead to devastating violence.
Sunday 17/06/2018
Who’s afraid of the ballot box? Iraqi electoral officials work to salvage ballot boxes from a fire at Baghdad’s largest ballot box  storage site, on June 10.  (AP)
Who’s afraid of the ballot box? Iraqi electoral officials work to salvage ballot boxes from a fire at Baghdad’s largest ballot box storage site, on June 10. (AP)

It has barely been a month since controversial Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr swept to victory in the Iraqi national elections, causing analysts and news organisations to describe it as an upset and a blow to the pro-Iran camp that has dominated Iraqi politics for 15 years.

Already, however, the election losers are trying to torpedo the winners, with political violence complementing the customary horse trading that follows Iraqi elections. Much of the controversy involved allegations of voter fraud, leading to fraught tensions and deadly exchanges.

In one of the more clear examples of bizarre election results, Kirkuk governorate has been wracked by civil instability, bomb attacks and protests by Arab and Turkmen populations claiming they have been robbed of their right to fair democratic representation.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party, founded by late Iraqi president and long-time Kurdish separatist Jalal Talabani, took six of the 12 seats available in the multi-ethnic governorate. The PUK’s success was so pronounced that it unseated lawmakers from the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) and the Kirkuk Arab Coalition, which had represented communities in districts dominated by their ethnic groups.

The independent International Crisis Group (ICG) released a report at the end of May stating it was very likely that the PUK had defrauded the elections and how such inconsiderate and unconscionable actions could lead to ethnic violence.

The ICG report said the results suffered from “two striking incongruities: The PUK won in several non-Kurdish areas where the party is not known to have any support… and turnout was low in Kurdish areas compared to past elections.”

In other words, not only did Kurds not bother to vote in large numbers due to disaffection with the PUK, which sided with Baghdad in quelling Kurdish independence, but the PUK seemed to win in areas where Turkmen and Arab citizens have a long history of hating Kurdish separatists.

These factors led to near continuous protests and disorder. ITF leader Arshad al-Salihi warned that ethnic-based violence could break out if Iraqi authorities did not do something about the alleged fraud.

The violence has spread to other parts of Iraq, including Baghdad and the surrounding areas, as predominantly pro-Iran Shia Islamist parties fight out for supremacy.

A suspected sabotage of an ammunition depot near a mosque in Baghdad’s Sadr City caused a massive explosion that killed seven people and wounded scores of others.

More suspiciously, and after the outgoing parliament ordered a manual recount of all votes cast, Iraq’s largest ballot storage warehouse was set ablaze in what is being deemed a blatant attempt to prevent any fair and accurate assessment of the extent of voter fraud.

Seemingly no one is happy with the elections, not least Iraqi voters themselves, who by and large boycotted the vote. Voter turnout was historically low at around 45%.

However, for those who did vote, events since the elections are not inspiring confidence in the political process that was already under fire for being rife with corruption and dominated by politicians who are part of armed factions serving foreign agendas.

Further meddling with an already unstable electoral system — as distinct from a democratic system, which Iraq is a long way away from — could lead to devastating violence that would bleed Iraq dry after decades of war and hardship.