Iraq’s early vote hindered by legal problems, lack of funds

Legal experts point out that the potential crisis of the coming polls is way more serious than a mere political dispute over the date of elections.
Friday 24/07/2020
An Iraqi man enters a voting booth at a polling station in the southern city of Basra during May 2018 election. (AFP)
An Iraqi man enters a voting booth at a polling station in the southern city of Basra during May 2018 election. (AFP)

BAGHDAD – Deciding on a date for early elections in Iraq remains a topic of political debate between factions amid legal concerns that are complicating the process.

Extended discussions led to three proposals for the date of early elections. The first was early October of next year, which was deemed appropriate by the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Many political parties, including the Sairoon bloc of Muqtada al-Sadr and the Alliance of Forces led by Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, believe that early April of next year is the best date.

As a compromise between the two views, the date June 1, 2021 has been suggested by US special envoy for Iraq Jeanine Plasschaert.

Although the United Nations is optimistic about its proposed date for early elections, the proposal is not taken seriously by many, as June temperatures in Iraq are likely to bring down poll turnout like in 2018.

Legal experts, however, point out that the potential crisis of the coming polls is way more serious than a mere political dispute over the date of early elections, since a lack of a quorum in the Federal Supreme Court may preclude polls from taking place at all.

Iraqi voters read lists of candidates outside a polling station in the central holy city of Najaf during the 2018 parliamentary election. (AFP)
Iraqi voters read lists of candidates outside a polling station in the central holy city of Najaf during the 2018 parliamentary election. (AFP)

For months, the Federal Supreme Court, the body that rules on constitutional disputes, has been unable to meet due to the retirement of one of its nine judges who has been unable to be replaced because of a legal dispute within the country’s judiciary over the mechanism of appointing Supreme Court judges.

The Federal Supreme Court has the exclusive authority to validate or invalidate poll results, validate the membership of each elected member of the House of Representatives and decide on electoral appeals.

Without a mechanism for replacing the retired judge, the Supreme Court will not be able to convene, as “the court law in force requires that the court consist of a president and eight members, and that a quorum of all nine members is required for the validity of its sessions. With the retirement of one of its members, the court’s quorum becomes illegitimate until his replacement. Consequently, everything that comes out of it is invalid and its decisions cannot be said to be binding.”

Administratively, the Supreme Court is supervised by the Supreme Judicial Council, but a political understanding sponsored by former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki years ago enabled it to obtain significant independence from the Council, even with regard to the appointment of its members.

During the past few years, the court replaced retiring members with new members from its reserve list. But the latest survey of the court’s reserve list revealed that all of its members have reached the legal retirement age and have actually retired, which makes them legally ineligible for the court. The court’s quorum, then, will have to remain incomplete until a solution is found for its dispute with the Supreme Judicial Council. Until then, election polls cannot be validated, and the results cannot be announced, according to the constitution and the laws in force.

Experts believe that the parties that have a vested interest in holding early elections may be able to sponsor an initiative to settle the situation between the Supreme Judicial Council and the Federal Court.

Despite approving the formula of multiple districts at the governorate level within the framework of the new election law, the annex listing the issues to be the subject of the poll is still under consideration at the planning ministry.

Sources say that there are differences between Arabs and Kurds over the limits of many districts within the barrier zone separating the two regions in the north of the country.

So far, problems persist over some Iraqis’ identification documents. There are concerns that IDs can be forged, leading to voter fraud.

Observers say there is a fourth problem hindering early elections — a lack of funds. In light of the deep economic crisis ravaging the country, the Kadhimi government may not find enough liquidity in the treasury to cover the cost of the polls.