Next month’s parliamentary election is probably the most dramatic in Iraq’s recent history. Given the highly partisan atmosphere at a time of “conflict fatigue”, a meaningful and effective election is crucial for the nation’s stability and its dysfunctional democracy.
But disputed ballot and contested outcome will certainly lay the groundwork in the following weeks or months for further political upheaval and an outbreak of new popular protests similar to the uprising that toppled the government in 2019.
Every Iraqi election since the overthrow of the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein has been marred by allegations of fraud and irregularities. Together with regional and international stakeholders, Iraqis fear that the October election could be a tipping point for the future.
To help ensure a successful poll while battling voters’ mistrust and fighting one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the Middle East, the government of Mustafa Al-Kadhimi is inviting international observers to oversee the ballots.
But while the government can see real value in foreign observers giving the poll a legal cover, many Iraqis remain sceptical about whether international observers can provide an objective means of validating the election to rescue Iraq’s tortured democracy.
Still, much of the outcome depends on the United Nations Political Mission in Iraq, UNAMI, which is empowered by numerous UN Security Council resolutions to “assist in the electoral process” and help “towards free and fair Iraqi-led elections that are inclusive.”
Last month the 15-member council unanimously approved an Iraqi request for a UN team to monitor the elections. A resolution it adopted authorised UNAMI to “provide a strengthened, robust and visible UN team” to monitor Iraq’s election day “with as broad a geographic coverage as possible.”
The UN is expected to deploy some 130 international experts to monitor the polls, along with 600 support staff whom UNAMI Chief Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said will provide Iraqi electoral authorities with “technical assistance” from the UN.
Meanwhile, the European Union has upped the international ante to improve the quality of Iraq’s election, deploying a watchdog mission to assist with the process. High Representative Josep Borrell said the observation mission was dispatched to “support the strengthening of Iraqi democracy.”
A core EU team of 32 election experts and observers have been deployed in different parts of the country. On election day the mission will be reinforced with short-term local observers coming from the EU member states’ diplomatic missions in Iraq.
The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) in Iraq said some 15 international organisations, including the Arab League, as well as foreign diplomatic missions in Iraq are also expected to send representatives to watch the ballots.
In all, foreign teams are expected to monitor some 8273 centres that include 55041 polling stations covering 83 electoral districts in 18 provinces across Iraq, a task many believe will be difficult to fulfill by such small groups.
As election time approaches, many Iraqis who had seen voting improprieties in past ballots remain in doubt, however. There is limited trust in the election system and widespread concern that the vote will not be characterised by fairness, political pluralism, confidence, transparency or impartiality.
Independent electoral observers as well as voters attribute that scepticisim to several factors.
First, in the aftermath of the 2019 uprising and the crackdown on the protest movement, mistrust has deepened in the country’s political elite and their willingness to patch the failures and loopholes in the institutions and processes that had led to problems.
Instead of an electoral law that would allow the participation of independent, secular parties, a new electoral law has maintained the influence of entrenched sectarian-affiliated political groups and helped to ensure their victory in any upcoming elections.
Pro-reform activists who declared their intention to participate in the election have faced a brutal crackdown, including targeted killings, disappearances and intimidation which forced many of them to abandon the vote or consider fleeing the country.
Secondly, reports of investigated irregularities and manipulation have further fuelled a politically fraught debate over voter fraud ahead of the election. In late August, the Supreme Judicial Council said it had formed a committee to probe “attempts to rig the election and manipulate the will of the voters by buying their cards.”
Earlier, the council said it had cracked down on a network linked to unidentified political groups using social media to spread false information about the upcoming election and working to change the results.
A former election officer, Miqdad Al-Sherifi was briefly detained earlier this month on suspicion of helping with fraud in 2014 and 2018 elections before he was released without charge.
Another major concern was that millions of old, unclaimed electronic voter cards which were never picked up by registered Iraqi voters in the 2014 and 2018 elections have mysteriously been kept by IHEC.
Though UNAMI has announced that some 4,670,000 electronic voter cards were shredded and disposed of, many Iraqis still fear that some of these cards could still be used for rigging the October election.
In addition, allegations of voter bribes and voting card purchases are rampant despite assurances of strict measures to block fraud and manipulation. On Saturday, the private Al-Sharqiyya TV reported that a candidate in a north Baghdad district had paid voters who promised to vote for him 100-300 dollars.
Thirdly, there are increasing signs of low expectations among Iraqis in the international observers’ ability to ensure Iraqis’ confidence in a credible election largely due to their limited mandate and their past experience in Iraq.
Both the United Nations and the European Union have insisted that they are sending their observers in response to an invitation by the Iraqi government to assist the electoral authorities in holding the upcoming elections.
Both organisations have also made it clear that the elections are “Iraqi-led and Iraqi-owned” and they are not “organising or supervising” the poll, thus cautiously distancing themselves from potential election problems.
Despite reports of fraud and vote recounts in the 2018 election, the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had congratulated the people of Iraq on the holding of parliamentary elections and stated that “the elections represented further progress in building a stronger Iraqi democracy.”
However, his representative Hennis-Plasschaert has admitted to “loopholes” from the past elections “that have undermined public trust in Iraq’s electoral process” and promised that the upcoming vote had “the potential to be different.”
More ironically, the European Union which sent an electoral team to oversee Iraq’s elections in 2018 had not made public a report of its findings which was reportedly critical to the process.
Iraqi media said the report which was sent to the Iraqi authorities ten months after voting day expressed doubts about the integrity of the election which was held in May 2018.
Among the criticisms voiced by EU experts were lack of transparency, absence of independent checking of the electronic system and counting irregularities.
The EU report also noted that changes in election regulations were made after voting ended.
Foreign observer missions have long been criticised for being ineffective in ensuring electoral integrity and failing to induce the authorities to respect the basic criteria of a free and fair election that deserves to be observed.
In many countries, foreign electoral missions were dubbed “electoral tourism” for sending unqualified and poorly trained observers who lack professional experience, arriving in a country few days before polling day and spending only a few hours at voting centres.
In Iraq’s case, where the electoral process has fallen short of basic requirements may also need overall international supervision, and not only through day-long monitoring, to help block illegal and dishonest practices and ensure a credible election.
The danger with UNAMI is that it is trying to wear two hats at once. While it provides technical electoral assistance in Iraq, which makes it a partner in the process, it wants to act as an observation mission to confer legitimacy on an election which many Iraqis see as fraught with uncertainty and doubt.
The EU, meanwhile, has failed to commit to making public its final report to the Iraqi people, reiterating that the findings of its mission will only be “presented and shared with stakeholders after the finalisation of the entire electoral process.”
The international community has failed Iraqis with each election held since Saddam’s ouster and poor conclusions by foreign election observer missions this time will further frustrate the desire for free, fair and transparent elections.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 23 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly