Iraq’s electoral commission under fire over bias allegations
London - Iraq’s parliament said it was working on replacing members of the country’s Independent High Electoral Commission following mass protests in Baghdad calling for reform.
Seven people — five protesters and two police officers — were killed during February 11th demonstrations called by Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Security forces fired tear gas and rubber bullets as demonstrators tried to march to the headquarters of the electoral commission in Baghdad’s Green Zone.
Al-Sadr urged supporters to protest against the commission, whose members are accused of being affiliated with al-Sadr’s rival Shia politicians, most notably former prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Al-Sadr also called for a change in Iraq’s electoral law, which he claims favours the current dominant parties and prevents smaller ones from gaining seats in parliament.
Tensions among the country’s Shia politicians resurfaced after the announcement of provincial elections, scheduled for September. Parliamentary elections are set for early 2018.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi ordered an investigation into the violence in which more than 200 people were injured. The Interior Ministry claimed that some demonstrators carried guns and knives but al-Sadr’s supporters insisted that the demonstrations were predominately peaceful, accusing pro-Maliki “thugs” of seeking to “infiltrate” it.
A military spokesman said several Katyusha rockets hit the Green Zone in the evening of February 11th but there were no casualties or claims of responsibility.
Al-Sadr promised “peaceful” retaliation for the deaths of his followers. “Their blood won’t have been shed in vain,” he said.
“I urge (Abadi) to deliver those reforms immediately, listen to the voice of the people and remove the corrupt,” al-Sadr said in a statement.
The electoral commission called on Abadi and on the international community to protect it, following an attack on one of its offices in Basra. Jan Kubis, the UN secretary-general’s representative in Iraq, said the commission “must be enabled and empowered to fulfil its constitutional mandate free from interference and intimidation” until it is replaced. Kubis urged the speeding up of the electoral reforms.
Iraq, which ranks 166th out of 176 nations and territories in Transparency International’s Corruption Index, has had several anti-corruption demonstrations, many of which were not led by al-Sadr. Observers said, however, that al-Sadr often resorts to street mobilisation because he does not enjoy the same backing from Iran as his Shia rivals.
The electoral commission has been criticised by many in Iraq’s Arab Sunni community, who accuse the post-2003 set-up of being skewed in favour of the country’s Shias and Kurds.
The commission has also come under fire from small secular parties. Outspoken member of parliament Faeq al-Sheikh Ali called for the commission — and indeed most of election monitors — to be replaced by independent judges who are not affiliated to any political party.
“The number one benefactor of the current commission and who fights for it to remain, is Mr Nuri al-Maliki. That is indisputable,” Ali said.
He scolded journalists for not mentioning Maliki’s name or the names of those supporting the commission in parliament, saying that the media reports deal with the issue in generalities without going into the specifics of who is doing what.
Ali also took a swipe at the commission for accusing its critics of having political motivations.
“What kind of motivations did they expect? Economic? Cultural? Of course [we have] political motivations because there is (electoral) fraud,” Ali said.
Ali’s calls for having judges on the commission does not have wide support, even among critics of the commission, who are mainly seeking an increase in their parties’ representatives.
The clashes came as the army prepared to resume its offensive against Islamic State (ISIS) militants in Mosul, which was launched October 17th.
The Islamic Dawa Party, whose members include Maliki and Abadi, accused protesters of seeking to “distract the Iraqi people in sedition to prevent the efforts to get rid of Daesh”, the Arabic acronym for ISIS. Al-Sadr’s supporters responded by saying that it was the corruption of the Dawa-dominated government that led to the fall of Mosul to ISIS in 2014.
Observers predicted greater fallout among the country’s dominant political parties once ISIS is defeated and the cause for unity is less urgent.