Iraq Pulse

Iraq faces uncertainty as parliament orders manual election recount

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Article Summary
As the Iraqi parliament orders a manual recount of ballots, the Kurdish opposition that lost in the election May 12 pushes for a cancellation of the result, while the PUK is adamant that the outcome should stand.

The Iraqi parliament took an unprecedented step June 6 by amending the 2013 election law, allowing for the manual recount of all the ballots — almost 11 million — cast May 12.

However, a fire June 10 at a Baghdad warehouse storing some of the ballots appeared to show that a full recount might not be possible.

The move for a manual recount comes after weeks of accusations by Kurdish and non-Kurdish parties that widespread fraud was committed in the elections, in particular in the Kurdish areas in the north of the country. The recount could plunge the country into further instability and create a serious hurdle in forming the new government.

How did the parties that disputed the results manage to gather enough evidence to prove that widespread rigging was committed?

As the international community congratulated the Iraqis on holding a fairly successful election, the chief election officer of the Change Movement (Gorran), Zemnako Jalal, was adamant that the results did not correspond with the reality on the ground. The soft-spoken 36-year-old has 13 years of election experience in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, and it came down to him and his team to show that the recent election was rigged.

The pressure was intense. While the results showed it losing strength in the national parliament, the bigger challenge for Gorran is the upcoming election for the Iraqi Kurdistan Region assembly in September. If Gorran did not stand up for its rights now, there would be no guarantee that the Kurdish electorate would rely on Gorran to defend voters' rights and stand up to the ruling parties in the Kurdistan regional parliament.

Two polls Jalal conducted prior to the election suggested that his movement would take 35% to 40% of the vote in Sulaimaniyah province, a stronghold of the movement when seen through the lens of the four regional and national elections since 2009. But the May 12 election results suggested a dismal failure for Gorran, which campaigned on a platform of transparency and protecting people’s rights. Under the relatively low turnout of around 45%, Jalal expected that his party would take around 250,000 votes. Instead it only won 157,000 votes. 

Two hours after the initial results came in, Jalal invited the other opposition parties that were not happy with the results for a meeting at the Gorran headquarters in order to discuss how to proceed. Then a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) commander and five peshmerga pickup trucks attacked the building.

Jalal had become interested in politics in his early teens when his father, a peshmerga who fought alongside the Barzanis and Talabanis for over 30 years, would listen to the Kurdish radio as they fought the Saddam regime in the mountains.

But the night of May 12, he almost lost his life when a bullet from a PUK peshmerga pierced his chair seconds after he dropped to the floor after hearing the sound of heavy machine gunfire outside the building.

Except for some of the main Shiite parties and the two ruling Kurdish parties, the other parties, including the Sunni Turkmens in Kirkuk and the Sunni Arabs across Iraq, were not happy with the results either. As these parties complained about election fraud, the main Shiite and Kurdish parties started negotiations to form the next government as soon as possible. Jalal and his colleagues in the main opposition parties, including the Coalition for Democracy and Justice and the two Islamist parties, were desperate to find evidence to prove their case.

There was just one avenue that the opposition parties could explore.

The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) was supposed to provide a scanned copy of every ballot within three days to the political parties that participated in the election. The commission maintained that the election had been clean save for minor irregularities. The commission officials delayed handing over the scanned ballots for various reasons. The opposition parties suspected foul play, but had no option except to wait and be patient. Almost two weeks later, Jalal and his team were given the ballots, including more than 600,000 for Sulaimaniyah province. The parties now had only four days to gather evidence of wrongdoing and inform the Electoral Judicial Board in Baghdad, which was tasked with verifying the results.

“I assembled a team of 40 people and got to work immediately,” Jalal told Al-Monitor from his office in Sulaimaniyah on June 6, a few hours before the parliament amended the law to allow for the recount of the ballots. “I asked for help from anyone including IT specialists I knew to see if we could find any evidence of foul play.” Jalal recalled that just under 24 hours after his team had started their task, "They noticed that some of the ballots that went to specific PUK candidates had the same exact number [20 digits] under the barcode.” He added, “We also noticed that the stamp that was used to identify the name of the party and the candidate was similar on all these ballots that carried the same [20-digit] number.”

Every ballot should have its own unique 20-digit number.

Jalal informed the other three opposition parties to look for the same pattern and by May 27, they had identified several numbers that appeared on thousands of ballots that went to six PUK candidates. “Over 100,000 votes in Sulaimaniyah province alone were tampered with,” Jalal noted, emphasizing that widespread fraud was committed across the Kurdistan Region, including in Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) areas.

Jalal and representatives from the Coalition for Democracy and Justice took 40,000 ballots with the same 20-digit number to Baghdad and handed them over to the Electoral Judicial Board on May 31. In addition, the head of the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, Barham Salih, had started lobbying the main Shiite parties and the representatives of the international community to hear their side of the story.

This led to a chain of events that resulted in the decision to remove the nine IHEC commissioners and replace them with nine judges to oversee the manual recount of the ballots.

The PUK has rejected any charges of fraud and a spokesman for the party said it would welcome a recount. The KDP, which was also accused of rigging, said that despite having reservations about the decision of a recount, it would nonetheless cooperate.

While it is unsure how this episode will end, Jalal hopes that his team’s efforts in pushing for a recount would convince people in Kurdistan and Iraq that they should not lose faith in the electoral process. 

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Fazel Hawramy is an independent journalist currently based in Iraqi Kurdistan. Twitter: @FazelHawramy

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