World News

Iraqi Court to Oversee Manual Recount Amid Post-Election Chaos

Posted June 7, 2018 11:45 a.m. EDT

BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Supreme Court will oversee a manual recount of ballots from last month’s election, according to an announcement Thursday, as a crescendo of fraud complaints and criticism of the country’s electoral commission threatened to undermine the legitimacy of the tightly contested vote.

The announcement from the court came in response to an unusual and politically tinged vote in Parliament on Wednesday in which lawmakers — including many who had apparently lost their seats in the election — amended the election law to demand a manual recount overseen by a panel of judges.

The May 12 election appeared to result in a surprising victory for the coalition led by Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, overturning a political establishment that has been entrenched since 2005.

Since the election result, politicians have made a barrage of complaints about voting irregularities, often without citing any evidence, and have made competing demands to address those flaws. The vote and its aftermath have crystallized pent-up frustration among Iraqi political parties and the international community about the performance of the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq, the quasi-autonomous agency that oversees campaigns and elections.

Informal results from the May 12 vote showed that al-Sadr’s Sairoon alliance, favored by many working-class and leftist voters, had won 54 of 329 seats in Parliament. Fatah, the bloc of popular Shiite militia figures who earned respect for their defense of the nation against the Islamic State group, placed second with 47 seats. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s Nasr bloc came in third with 42 seats.

The results, however, have not been formally ratified, as the country has waited for the electoral commission to investigate allegations of isolated cases of fraud and reports of multiple technical malfunctions in new electronic ballot machines. In the interim, envoys from foreign powers, including the United States, have met with the presumed winners and congratulated Iraq for what many described as a democratic success.

The election commission said Thursday that it would appeal Parliament’s demand for a manual recount. The panel has denied that there were widespread irregularities in the vote.

It is unclear how the manual recount of ballots would affect the seat totals, but it would delay the formation of a new government for many more weeks — as well as cement the view that the political process is mired in corruption.

The election drew a historically low voter turnout of 45 percent, reflecting widespread disgust among Iraqis with their political leaders. That view has spread since the election, in part because of the way the electoral commission has handled complaints about the balloting.

The commission, which is made up of independent technocrats and representatives of political parties, has worked in a near-total media blackout, refusing to explain which allegations it would investigate or the criteria for their review.

At the same time, commission members have themselves fueled controversy. In the days after the vote, the commission announced falsely that some of its members were being held captive by armed men in the oil-rich and politically divided province of Kirkuk, where the vote count had already been under review. The statement whipped up an already highly charged security and political atmosphere in the region.

Soon afterward, the United Nations’ top official in Iraq issued a public plea urging a professional and speedy investigation into the fraud allegations.

Controversy increased again this week when the electoral body announced that it had voided votes from 1,021 ballot boxes around the country, as well as ballots cast by Iraqi citizens overseas. It did not say which electoral districts the boxes came from, why the ballots were voided, or what criteria it used in taking that action. The majority of fraud complaints have come from Kurdish regions in northern Iraq and from some of the areas still struggling with security after the defeat of the Islamic State.

Al-Abadi, who retains his position as prime minister until the new government is formed, has also stepped into the fray.

In his weekly news conference Tuesday, he announced that a special commission of senior intelligence and security officials that he had asked to examine reports of irregularities had concluded that there had been “unprecedented” violations. He also criticized the electoral commission for “not taking the needed measures or taking the wrong ones.”

A Cabinet meeting approved the recommendation from the prime ministerial commission in support of a recount.

On Wednesday, the Iraqi Parliament passed amendments to the electoral law that called for the election commission to be sidelined and replaced by a group of judges to oversee a recount.

Many of the legislators who supported the amendments had lost their seats according to the original ballot tallies — including senior leaders such as the speaker of Parliament — raising fresh concerns about conflicts of interest.

With its announcement Thursday, the Supreme Court in effect said that it would abide by the newly amended law.

In a statement, the court said that it would call a special meeting of judges Sunday, the start of the Iraqi working week, to put forward a plan for managing the recount of approximately 11 million votes.

A spokesman for the court promised that the judges would carry out the job in a fair and impartial way.