Iraq’s electoral commission is facing allegations of corruption and of poorly supervising elections, with some members of parliament calling for reforms that could delay the country’s January polls.
The charges were recently voiced in a parliamentary inquiry into the Independent High Electoral Commission, IHEC, which posed the most serious challenge to the body’s credibility since it was established in 2007.
Deputies who are sharply critical of IHEC’s performance want the commission overhauled and supervised, with some pushing parliament to hold a no-confidence vote against its commissioners this week.
But some analysts and political leaders said the vote may not be held because it could force the resignation of IHEC officials, creating turmoil in the commission and potentially delaying the parliamentary election.
“If IHEC goes down now, there is no alternative or substitute except to create a new board of commissioners, which will take time,” said Hogar Chato, spokesman for Shams, an independent Iraqi election monitoring organisation. “This will force the election to be postponed.”
United Nations and United States officials expressed concern a week ago that the January parliamentary election could be delayed due to a stalemate in Iraq’s parliament over a new election law and proposals to overhaul IHEC shortly before the election. Parliament is expected to vote on the election law this week.
The parliamentary poll is considered an important benchmark of the country’s stability and democratic progress.
In parliamentary hearings on IHEC’s performance, members of parliament accused it of misusing public funds and making decisions that they said favoured Iraq’s most influential parties.
IHEC officials have denied accusations of impropriety, including allegations that commission chief Faraj Haideri, a former official with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, accepted bribes from Kurdistan region president and KDP leader Massoud Barzani during the Kurdish parliamentary and presidential election in July.
Deputies also said commissioners used IHEC’s funds to purchase personal vehicles and furniture for their homes. Haideri told IWPR that all items were purchased and owned by IHEC.
“The accusations concerning car ownership and the other charges are false,” he said. “They don’t have any concrete evidence.”
Haideri said the commission intends to file lawsuits against member of parliament Jamal al-Batik, who made the bribery accusation, and the Kurdish newspaper Hawlati for publishing the charge “without providing a shred of evidence”.
Nuri Osman, a senior KDP official and spokesman for the region’s cabinet, told IWPR the bribery claims levelled against Barzani were “unfair” and “completely baseless”.
Barzani’s office did not immediately return calls seeking comment. However, in a recent interview with the Arabic-language Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, Barzani spokesman Fuad Hussein also denied that the Kurdish region’s presidency offered any bribes to the IHEC, before or after the Kurdish regional elections this summer.
In addition, IHEC commissioners have been interrogated about Iraq’s provincial council poll in February, including IHEC’s decision to reject recount appeals by losing parties and discrepancies between provisional and final results. Deputies said that over 80,000 ballots were unaccounted for in Baghdad in the provincial poll and raised concerns that ink on voters’ fingers could easily be washed off.
Several parties raised similar concerns about the IHEC shortly after the provincial council and Kurdish parliamentary and presidential ballots this year. Commissioners denied any wrongdoing, and the IHEC, along with some political leaders and independent monitors, said that the charges were made by coalitions that were unhappy with the final results.
While many deputies are critical of the IHEC’s performance, some believe that the parliamentary inquiry could be politically motivated to influence the election.
Sceptics argue that discrediting the election commission could help delay the poll or put candidates in a better position to challenge the results. They also say that members of parliament leading the charge can campaign as advocates of transparency and accountability – two issues that are especially important for Iraqi voters who are fed up with corruption.
Sabah al-Saadi, chairman of parliament’s integrity committee, defended the inquiry as a “constitutional right practiced by members in accordance with their parliamentary duties” and said it was “essential to democracy-building”.
Karim al-Yakoobi, a deputy with the Shia Fadhila party, spearheaded calls for IHEC to be investigated in April and organised a petition signed by 50 members to question the commission in July. The Fadhila party suffered heavy losses in the provincial council elections in January, losing ground to a coalition led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Dawa party.
Yakoobi said the timing of the questioning, just three months prior to the parliamentary election, was suspicious but he defended the hearings as just.
The inquiry, which was broadcast on state-run television, “shows that there are significant breaches in IHEC’s work”, he said.
Yakoobi is leading the push for the no-confidence vote against IHEC’s commissioners this week. Other proposals include creating a parliamentary committee to oversee IHEC’s work and sending polling station workers to other provinces, which some believe could cut the chances of fraud.
UN Iraq envoy Ad Melkert released a statement last week cautioning parliament against making major changes to IHEC prior to the January poll, saying reforms “would severely disrupt the ongoing electoral preparations to the point that it would not be possible to hold credible elections until a considerably later date”.
He encouraged the assembly to wait until after the parliamentary election to evaluate IHEC’s performance, saying that with UN support, the “IHEC should be able to deliver credible election results in January 2010 that will be broadly accepted by all political factions and the Iraqi voters”.
IHEC commissioner Hamdiya Husseini told IWPR the commission was not concerned about a no-confidence vote.
“IHEC’s election preparations are well under way and continuing,” she said in a statement.
Faleh Hassan is an IWPR-trained reporter in Baghdad. IWPR-trained journalist Basim al-Shara contributed to this report from Baghdad.