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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Confusion threatens post-election hopes for stability in Iraq

To challenge extremism, Iraqi politics must be seen as offering a legitimate and reliable system of rule, writes Mina Al-Oraibi

A fire tore through Iraq's biggest ballot warehouse in Baghdad today. Sabah Arar / AFP
A fire tore through Iraq's biggest ballot warehouse in Baghdad today. Sabah Arar / AFP

It is one thing to hold an election; another to follow through on its results.

Since 2003, Iraq has had a complex political system introduced by the American-led occupation and endorsed by the Iraqi constitution.

A fragmented federal multi-party list system has added to the political difficulties facing a country emerging from years of dictatorship and war. However, Iraq’s political system is not unique. A parliamentary system based on an honorary president with large coalitions needed to form a government can often be problematic. Cases in point: Italy and Lebanon.

The intervening time between elections and government formation is challenging because of the uncertainty that it carries – even more so for a country with the challenges facing Iraq.

Nearly a month after the elections, political discussions between parties over government formation have stalled as the results themselves have been called into question.

Iraqi cleric Moqtada Al Sadr’s coalition emerged as the winner, with the largest number of seats in parliament giving him the advantage of naming the incoming prime minister and forming the government.

While he is likely to maintain that lead, his position could be challenged. There are more than 31 parties in Iraq and a disparity of only a few seats between the top five parliamentary lists.

A recount could change the fortunes of one or more parties. Today, the results and how they came about are now in question.

Various politicians, including Prime Minister Haider Al Abadi, claim that the results need to be investigated due to allegations of fraud. The electoral commission denies this. Little evidence has been produced to that effect, except for some instances in Suleimaniyah and Kirkuk.

The initial results gave rise to hopes of a non-sectarian, nationalist government emerging. Those hopes might yet be dashed.

The objections raised about the electoral process and results have become so numerous, most Iraqis are struggling to follow their details.

Last week, parliament passed a law to mandate a manual recount of the votes, along with the replacement of members of the Independent Higher Electoral Commission with judges.

The commissioners plan to appeal against the law, stating that the very independence of the commission is being undermined. Last Wednesday’s parliamentary vote saw members of parliament who had lost out in the most recent elections attack the legitimacy of the process that cost them their seats.

Questions abound as to whether those MPs would have contested the results so strongly had they won.

Political pressure on the commission is compounded with the assumed guilt of its members after a blanket travel ban was imposed on them.

Ironically, the May 12 poll was meant to be the election with the least incidence of fraud as an electronic counting system was introduced.

The new technology was feted as safeguarding all ballot boxes. But in reality, instances of intimidation outside a few polling stations, mixed with delaying tactics and significant claims of fraud, have cast partial doubt on the results.

There was further potential for chaos after a fire broke out in a Baghdad ballot box storage site on Sunday.

Elections where one aspect is questioned end up facing scrutiny across the board.

The involvement of the judiciary is a significant test for Baghdad. Iraq has a complex legal system that includes the Higher Judicial Council, the Supreme Court, the Court of Cassation, the Public Prosecution Department and the Judiciary Oversight Commission – to name just a few.

Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council, the highest judicial authority in the country, now has the daunting task of naming judges to take over the work of the commission.

While the executive and legislative branches of government are currently in flux, the judiciary must be safeguarded from political manipulation.

It is unclear how long the manual recount will take but the expectation is that government formation will now be delayed by at least several weeks.

A low voter turnout of 45 per cent in the elections has already led to questions about how reflective it was of the Iraqi people’s will.

With doubt about the validity of some of the ballots cast, Iraq’s politics are heading for more troubled times.

Meanwhile, the country is not yet out of the woods when it comes to ISIS. Militants are adopting a “wait and see” approach while political rivalries play out. They can seize any opportunity to undercut the political process they have declared war on.

Likewise, infighting between different political factions with militias could lead to an uptick in violence. Areas where the results are in question are most affected, as witnessed with attacks in Kirkuk and Diyala over the past week.

However, it is worth remembering that the areas which ISIS controlled had a high voter turnout. West Mosul, which suffered most under ISIS, had the highest percentage of voters.

That endorsement is not one to be disregarded or taken lightly. To challenge extremists, the political system must be seen as a legitimate and reliable system of rule.

All parties in Iraq – and those supporting it, like the United Nations – need to agree how to deliver on the results of the elections and restore confidence in them.

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Fire breaks out in Baghdad's largest ballot box storage site