x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

One man's vote casts suspicion on election

Holidaymaker from Manchester was allowed to vote after telling security he intended to support the 'List 54' alliance.

ERBIL, IRAQ // As a British citizen who has lived outside of Iraqi Kurdistan for 15 years, Mohammad Malik's name was not on any electoral register here and he was not eligible to take part in Saturday's regional election. But, with little difficulty, he still managed to cast a vote. "I went along to the polling station in the afternoon and told the guards I wanted to vote," he said, speaking on condition that his real name not be used. "They asked me who I supported, and I told them '54'. So one of them said: 'Wait here, we'll get you in'." There have been allegations of significant corruption in the election, mainly levelled against List 54, the alliance between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The two have held power here for 20 years, but in this election, for the first time, they faced genuine opposition to their dominance. Their critics say they left nothing to chance in trying to extend their reign. Despite the various claims of fraud, currently under investigation by Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, there have been few details outlining how it may have happened in practice. According to Mr Malik, who was taking a holiday away from his restaurant in Manchester, England, to visit his family in Erbil, it was simple. "Ten minutes after I spoke to the guards, a man came and gave me a name. He said, 'this is who you are, sign this name on the paper when you vote'. "They said I should show my Iraqi ID card face down, and that the person checking the names would not ask me to turn it over. I signed the false name, filled in the ballot paper, put it in the box and dipped my finger in ink to say I'd voted. "There were plenty of people in the room, and the monitors I suppose, but they just watched me vote; no one asked me anything." The security services in Iraqi Kurdistan are controlled by the KDP and PUK and Mr Malik said he knew that if he told them he was on their side, they would let him vote. In reality, he cast his fraudulent ballot for their main opponent, No 57, the Change List. "If I'd told the guards I wanted to vote for Change, they would have said it was illegal," Mr Malik said. "I'm Kurdish, I know how it works here. I told them what they wanted to hear, and I voted as I wanted to vote. "Of course the election was going to be full of cheating. I'd hoped it wouldn't be, but it was always going to happen. This isn't Europe." The KDP and PUK have accepted there were some violations of electoral law, but insist that it was limited in scale and was not widespread enough to have any effect on the final result. They emphatically deny any systematic attempt to subvert the vote. Each polling station had dozens of observers, drawn from different political parties, there to prevent fraud. There were hundreds of independent international observers. Change List and other opposition groups have registered formal complaints with the electoral commission, claiming that members of the security forces were allowed to vote more than once in several places and that unregistered voters, such as Mr Malik, were allowed to take part. They have also said that an hour-long extension to voting hours was unwarranted and part of an effort by the KDP/PUK alliance to use-up registered names who had not yet come to cast ballots. The commission is looking into the claims, but has said it did not believe any fraud would have affected the election's outcome. Such assurances have not convinced KDP/PUK opponents. "It was cleverly done," said Younan Hozaya, the deputy leader of the Assyrian Democratic Movement, which contested the election. "In the morning everything was clean; there were no problems. All the journalists were there watching, all the party leaders came out and said it's a clean election. "Then in the late afternoon and evening, the problems started. Unused names on polling registers were used; security forces double-voted. "Voting was pretty steady all day in most places and there was no need for the hour-long extension. We are suspicious of these last-minute rushes to vote." As with other senior opposition party figures, Mr Hozaya said he regretted his early remarks to local media that the election appeared to be fair. "I voted at 10am and at that time, everything looked good," he said. "If you come out later and say, 'Actually there were real problems with fraud', everyone thinks it just means you're a bad loser; it's hard to retract that kind of statement." One cause of suspicion is the high turnout in Dohuk and Erbil compared to Sulaymaniyah. The first two provinces, firmly held by the KDP, had 85.9 per cent and 79 per cent respectively, while Sulaymaniyah, traditionally seen as more politically engaged, had the lowest turnout at 75 per cent. With Change List strong in Sulaymaniyah, and with them involved in a bitter fight with the PUK - the party from which Change split six months ago - turnout was expected to be significantly higher there. At least one polling station in the city centre reported that six per cent of potential voters had been turned away because their names were not registered. Others had problems voting because a vote had already been cast in their name. "It was very disappointing not to have a clean election, but not really surprising," said Mr Hozaya, whose Christian party is effectively guaranteed a place in the next parliament because of a quota for minority groups. "The KDP/PUK administration has just been about pure power for years. They talked about democracy when there was no opposition and when they saw they might actually lose power to that democracy, they couldn't help themselves: they had to cling to it." Final results are not expected to be announced until today at the earliest, but initial reports indicate that Change List may have taken up to 25 per cent of the regional vote, and won in Sulaymaniyah province. If true that would mark a significant dent in the KDP/PUK dominance over the 111-member parliament. Before the election they held 104 parliamentary seats, in conjunction with other allied parties. Massoud Barzani, the incumbent president, appears to have been re-elected by a clear margin, although Kamal Mirawdeli, one of his opponents in the direct presidential election which ran in parallel with the parliamentary ballot, reportedly won in Sulaymaniyah.