Iraq’s electoral commission under fire over bias allegations

Sunday 19/02/2017
Iraqi protester holding placard reading in Arabic, \'We demand to change the electoral commission\'

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.