“The United States congratulates the Iraqi people on today’s parliamentary elections. Citizens from every ethnic and religious group, and from all 18 provinces, including those internally displaced, made their voices heard,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hours after polling stations in Iraq closed on 12 May.
UK Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa Alistair Burt also welcomed the controversial elections which is marred by fraud allegations and boycotted by more than 56 per cent of eligible voters as a “historic day for Iraq.”
A spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres joined the chorus to congratulate the Iraqis following the parliamentary elections, applauding the “tireless efforts of electoral officials, party agents and the security forces in making the elections largely peaceful and orderly.”
Pundits in Western think-tanks were quick to hail Iraq’s fourth national elections since the fall of former dictator Saddam Hussein as “democratic” and predicted they would craft a way out of the country’s “morass.”
So, the question now is whether the Iraqi elections deserved this lavish praise despite deep flaws in the process that now threatens not only to derail the country’s fragile political process but also to plunge Iraq into turmoil or even a new civil war.
Some ten million Iraqis went to polling centres across the country to vote for MPs in the first general elections to be held after the Iraqi government’s victory over the Islamic State (IS) group in December.
A political alliance led by influential Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr won 54 seats, the most in the voting, according to results released by Iraq’s Higher Elections Commission (IHEC).
The Victory Alliance headed by incumbent Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi trailed in third place with 42 seats behind the Al-Fatih bloc that won 47.
Many contenders, however, declared the poll to be illegitimate due to alleged malpractices, while many Iraqis were particularly sceptical about the elections’ integrity and results.
Irregularities were reported in multiple provinces and focused on the balloting of overseas and security forces voters and on the tabulation system used in electronic voting machines employed for the first time in national elections in Iraq.
The fraud claims surfaced first in the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, where Arabs and Turkmens complained about systematic rigging by the two main Kurdish parties. Protesters surrounded the headquarters of the Provincial Elections Commission demanding manual recounts of the results.
In Sulaimaniya, the stronghold of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, several Kurdish parties complained about what they called fraudulent results and called on the IHEC to conduct a manual recount of votes in the province.
The Iraqi parliament passed a resolution seeking a partial recount. It also cancelled ballots cast from overseas and within displacement camps inside the country and required 10 per cent of all the votes to be manually recounted.
If cheating is discovered it could lead to a recount of all the ballots nationwide, according to the parliament’s resolution.
Meanwhile, the government decided on 24 May to form a panel to investigate reports pertaining to the elections.
A statement by the cabinet said the committee would be given access to all documents related to the electoral process and would then submit recommendations.
The IHEC, however, dismissed both decisions as “interference” in its independence. It announced it was partially cancelling the results from more than 1,000 polling stations.
It also voluntarily scrutinised 2,000 more stations, out of which 852 proved to have witnessed breaches, and the IHEC then cancelled their results.
Unlike previous elections in Iraq, a biometric electronic voting system was used that was meant to streamline the electoral process and prevent voter fraud.
The technology, provided by South Korean firm Miru Systems, has never been used in a major election and doubts about its reliability are common.
Many of the allegations centred on the voting machines, which critics said lacked the transparency needed to make everyone understand them.
The accusations also included tampering with the results in order to allow large numbers of voters from groups likely to vote for the losing candidate.
The elections were wracked by boycotts, low turnout and high abstention rates, and they reflected apathy and widespread discontent at the slow pace of reforms led by Al-Abadi’s government.
Prior to the vote, allegations were made about malpractices in voter registrations and the bribery of voters who had allegedly been offered money or food baskets by candidates in exchange for their votes.
Some voiced fears of rigging of the voting outside of Iraq as polling stations for millions of Iraqis in the diaspora lacked proper methods of registration and counting and could be controlled by Iraqi embassies and branches of the ruling political parties abroad.
Many groups have criticised the composition of the IHEC and accused its members of being affiliated to the main ruling factions. They fear that a biased IHEC cannot guarantee fair and efficient balloting.
One key shortcoming in the elections was the absence of adequate and effective monitoring of the process despite the presence of thousands of monitors from local and foreign NGOs and international organisations to oversee the count in each of the polling stations and prevent the theft of ballot papers.
USAID, UN agencies and the EU provided millions of dollars to assist local networks in monitoring the elections process, including the polling and counting inside Iraq and overseas.
This army of international election workers intended to deter foul play and ensure free-and-fair polls has thus far failed to issue a verdict, let alone make a strong and clear statement about the alleged violations.
Though the international observers did not do anything in Iraq’s elections that they had not previously done elsewhere in the world, their failure to condemn last month’s flawed voting process underscores the larger failure of the international community to stop the routine occurrence of election fraud in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003.
Irregularities on a shameless scale have been reported before during elections in Iraq.
Allegations of election-rigging have been common since Iraq’s first post-Saddam vote in 2005. The reported irregularities have included ballot-stuffing, intimidation, stealing or destroying ballot boxes and threatening election officials.
In a country whose political elites have allowed $700 billion to go missing from oil revenues since Saddam’s fall, it is highly likely that they would struggle to win re-election even if deeply flawed polls made a mockery of democracy.
However, for the international community, free-and-fair elections in Iraq do not count for much even if the legitimacy of these elections has been seriously questioned and the country as a whole faces its biggest political crisis since the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iraq’s stolen elections