An alliance headed by prime minister Nuri al-Maliki has been declared as having received the largest number of seats in Iraq's elections last month, but many of his political opponents doubt the vote's fairness and claim massive fraud.
If proved, the allegations of irregularities and vote-rigging will cast shadows over the legitimacy of the new parliament elected on 30 April and may further worsen the decade-long political ructions and sectarian violence that have been largely blamed on the nation's political class.
Iraq's Independent Higher Election Commission (IHEC) announced on Monday that al-Maliki's State of Law Alliance had won 92 out of 328 parliamentary seats. His main rivals finished with between nine and 34 seats overall. Smaller blocs received between one and six seats.
A potential new prime minister would need the support of a total of 165 members. Negotiations to build a coalition to form a new government will likely drag on for weeks, if not months, observers say.
Prior to the IHEC's announcement, several political leaders and blocs made complaints about alleged electoral fraud and warned of dire consequences to come.
Former prime minister Ayad Allawi talked about “irregularities” committed during the polling process and slammed the IHEC as biased. He also claimed to have won the majority of votes in Baghdad.
“The Commission is not qualified to run the elections,” Allawi said at a press conference, accusing al-Maliki of having prevented him from securing top place in the polls.
The leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, Ammar al-Hakim, warned of “rigging or irregularities” in the polls, calling on the Commission to work in a more professional way.
Al-Hakim, whose Al-Muwatin, or Citizen, bloc came third in the elections with 29 seats, had threatened a “decisive response” if the results of the elections were “illogical.” Early unofficial results showed that the bloc had won more than 40 seats.
The Al-Ahrar Bloc which is affiliated to the popular Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr came second with 34 seats and pointed the finger at al-Maliki's bloc for alleged fraud and warned it would go to court to challenge the results.
Sunni groups also complained of election mishaps, claiming forgery had been used in favour of candidates supported by al-Maliki. Another complaint was that systematic efforts had been made to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Sunnis in flashpoints around Baghdad.
The Arabia Alliance of Sunni deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutleq appealed for the United Nations and the Arab League to carry out investigations.
The Kurdish parties also exchanged accusations of fraud. While the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its allies accused the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of rigging the elections in Sulimaniya, the latter said it had registered irregularities in Erbil, the stronghold of the KDP.
In response, the IHEC rubbished allegations of fraud at the polls, insisting that the balloting had been handled in a professional and transparent way. However, it said it had received some 2,030 complaints.
The main bone of contention has been the al-Maliki government’s direct or procedural interference in the elections. Reported irregularities include the unfair use of state resources and bribery to induce voters.
A video widely circulated on social networks showed a member al-Maliki's State of Law Alliance inducing voters in a southern province to vote for his bloc in exchange for plots of land, saying that he was speaking on behalf of al-Maliki.
During the election campaign al-Maliki himself was filmed distributing title deeds for plots of land owned by the government.
Al-Maliki's coalition had largely based its electoral campaign on promising government jobs, especially in the police and the army which are under al-Maliki's direct control.
“They used political money and did not refrain from using the state apparatus and [government] posts and state resources in their campaigns,” Jassim al-Halfi, an unsuccessful candidate for the Civil and Democratic Alliance, wrote on his Facebook page.
The blocs also deplored what they called the polarisation and bias of the state-owned media during the elections. State-run television was widely seen as being supportive of al-Maliki through broadcasts including live coverage of his campaign.
Some of the irregularities that are believed to have occurred involved assisting illiterate voters to cast their ballots. There are more than six million illiterate people in Iraq, and the media noted a worryingly high number of assisted voters in many polling stations, where ballots were marked in favour of al-Maliki's candidates.
In some cases it was reported that literate people were told to claim they were illiterate so that they could be assisted by al-Maliki’s staff.
The complaints also included ballot stuffing, intimidation, stealing or destroying ballot boxes and threatening election officials.
There have been numerous reports of al-Maliki’s using the soaring violence that has hit Iraq to ensure his success. Voting was halted in a third of Anbar, where Sunni insurgents control the city of Fallujah and parts of the western desert province.
“By prolonging the crisis [in Fallujah] he has benefited his allies,” said Liqa'a Wardi, a Sunni member of the outgoing parliament.
Ameer al-Kinani of the Sadrist Movement accused the Commission of fabricating results in Abu Ghraib, a Sunni-dominated district. He doubted the reported 90 per cent turn out and 80 per cent support for al-Maliki in this hotbed of anti-government resistance west of Baghdad.
In Maysan, a stronghold of the Sadrist Movement which had won the two previous national and provincial elections, al-Maliki surprisingly won four seats over the Sadrists who received only three.
Among other allegations of fraud by the ruling al-Maliki bloc has been forcing military and security personnel to vote for the prime minister. The uniformed services, whose leaders are under the command of al-Maliki, voted a week earlier in a special vote as they were to be on duty during the elections.
More police are alleged to have registered to vote than are on the state payroll.
Some of the charges of irregularities have been leveled against the IHEC itself. Following the announcement of the results, al-Hakim's bloc accused the Commission of tampering with some of the ballot boxes. It also pointed to pressure put on the Commission to disqualify some of the candidates
There is no information about how many of the ballot papers were printed or if they were in line with international standards, raising concerns of the accountability of the unused ballots.
In some cases the Commission was reported to have paid non-state broadcasters large amounts of money to put a positive spin on the elections and praise the Commission.
Most blocs also complained about delays in releasing the results, which they said had probably been used to change them.
The Commission has denied the charges, with chief commissioner Sarbast Mustafa saying it had annulled the results of 300 polling stations for reported violations and that more than 1,000 electoral workers had been referred to the judicial authorities for investigation.
It said it had made it obligatory for all Iraqis to receive electronic voting cards in order to cast their ballots. Voters were also asked to dip their fingers in indelible ink to prevent double voting.
Doubts have also been raised about the monitoring of the elections. The Commission said some 350 foreign observers had participated in monitoring the elections, in addition to thousands of election monitors representative of Iraq's competing political parties themselves.
However, the IHEC banned one of the prominent observation groups from monitoring the elections after it had criticised its pre-balloting arrangements. On Monday, the Shams Network for Election Monitoring reported massive irregularities, including ballot stuffing in Baghdad in favour of al-Maliki's bloc.
Both the United Nations and the United States welcomed the results. The US embassy in Baghdad described the elections as “another milestone in the democratic development of Iraq,” but neither the UN nor the US talked about the credibility of the elections.
Electoral fraud has not been uncommon in post-Saddam Iraq. In the previous two polls, held when Iraq was still under US occupation, talk of fraud was common even if it was not reported in the mainstream western press, which was too busy trumpeting Iraq's so-called nascent democracy.
Iraq's elections have proved once again that they are likely to continue to produce a sectarian wasteland instead of a genuine democracy or a stable and crisis-free Iraq.
If the results of last month's polls mean anything, they prove that power-hungry politicians will continue to use sectarianism as their driving force, even through a parliament whose legitimacy is increasingly in doubt.
This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly