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The aftermath of a parliamentary election upset that brought an underdog Shia cleric to the political forefront in Iraq has been marked by controversy, allegations of fraud and now a planned ballot recount that could significantly delay the government’s formation. The upheaval has stoked fears of new outbreaks of violence in the country, whose election had been hailed by international observers as a step toward strengthening its democracy.
However, tensions may be diffused after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi – who came in third in the elections – announced that his coalition would form an alliance with the bloc that took the lead. The 12 May 2018 elections saw a coalition led by Muqtada al-Sadr, a former militia leader who fought against the US occupation of Iraq in the early 2000s, take a surprise lead over al-Abadi, who had been expected to win after a boost in his popularity following the defeat of the Islamic State (IS) last year. Al-Abadi’s coalition also lagged behind the coalition led by Hadi al-Amiri, another Shia militia leader.
Whereas al-Sadr is an Iraqi nationalist who has voiced suspicion of foreign meddling, including by Iran, al-Amiri is considered to be closer to Iran. As such, al-Sadr’s victory was, to an extent, welcomed by the West and particularly by the US, even by those who previously fought against al-Sadr’s forces.
Voter turnout was historically low, at less than 45 per cent, perhaps reflecting a lack of confidence in the political process. That confidence has been further undermined by events since the poll.
Following the elections, politicians – many of whom had lost their seats – made allegations of voting irregularities, including instances of fraud, and demanded a recount. The Iraqi electoral commission denied the allegations and pushed back against the call for a recount.
With a 6 June vote to amend the election law, parliament ousted the electoral commission and replaced it with a panel of judges tasked with overseeing a manual recount of the 11 million ballots cast. Al-Abadi endorsed the recount and alleged problems with electronic vote counting devices that had been used for the first time in the country. Al-Sadr’s camp, meanwhile, painted the recount as a delaying tactic to undermine al-Sadr’s victory and prevent the formation of the new government.
The same day, 18 people were killed in an explosion in Sadr City, a centre of al-Sadr’s support, which Iraqi officials said was due to the detonation of a munitions cache, but in a seemingly conflicting statement, called it ‘a terrorist aggression on civilians’. Subsequently, Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council issued an arrest warrant for 20 people accused of involvement, but the motivation for the attack remain unclear.
The drama continued. On 10 June 2018, a fire broke out in a warehouse in Baghdad that held ballots that were slated to be recounted. Iraqi police arrested three police officers and a member of the elections committee in connection with the fire. Some used the incident to call for the elections to be re-run, saying the results were tainted. Al-Abadi opposed this, while al-Sadr’s coalition once again called the fire an attempt by the elections’ losers to delay the certification of the results and formation of a new government.
In the aftermath of the fire, al-Sadr’s coalition – the Sairoun list, composed of al-Sadr’s group and the Iraqi Communist Party – announced that it would form a bloc with Amiri’s Fatih group – the Shia contingent that came in second in the elections – and would forge ahead with forming a government. Still, the alliance fell 64 seats short of the 165 needed to accomplish that task.
Perhaps in an attempt to smooth the way, al-Abadi and al-Sadr announced on 24 June 2018 that they would form a coalition that ‘transcends sectarianism and ethnic’ issues ‘in order to speed up the formation of the new government and agree on the principles which serve the aspirations of our people’. The prime minister said the new alliance would not conflict with the pre-existing alliance between al-Sadr and al-Amiri, but it remains to be seen how all of the new coalitions will hold together.
Political observers are anxious that the controversy around the elections could upset prospects for a peaceful democratic transition. ‘The euphoria after 12 May that a non-sectarian, nationalist government was emerging seems to be dissipating in the face of the realities of Iraq’s politics and an incumbent political elite desperate to hold onto power,’ wrote Ibrahim al-Marashi, an associate professor of Middle East history at California State University San Marcos, in a column for the Middle East Eye.
Tallha Abdulrazaq, a researcher at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute in the United Kingdom, worried that ‘further meddling with an already unstable electoral system … could lead to devastating violence that would bleed Iraq dry after decades of war and hardship’.
Meanwhile, the situation in Kirkuk has been particularly explosive. Election results in the mixed Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen areas showed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) winning half of the 12 seats in play, with the other half split evenly between the Iraqi Turkmen Front and Kirkuk Arab Coalition.
Although the result in itself was not surprising, given the area’s ethnic composition, there were irregularities that led to accusations of fraud. For instance, whereas turnout in Kurdish areas was low, possibly due to discontent at PUK for having allowed Iraqi forces to wrest Kirkuk from Kurdish control in October 2017, the PUK won surprisingly strong support in Arab and Turkmen areas that have not traditionally supported it.
Arab and Turkmen groups demonstrated over alleged election fraud and demanded a recount. The situation in Kirkuk is particularly sensitive because of the area’s disputed status and the possibility that it could eventually end up as part of an independent Kurdish state – an outcome that many Arab and Turkmen residents oppose.
The International Crisis Group (ICG) noted that Kirkuk has not held provincial elections since 2005 because the various groups could not agree on a process, although a date has now been set for December 2018.
The ICG suggested that this progress has potentially been jeopardized by the controversy around the elections: ‘If people in Kirkuk have no confidence in the electoral process and its results today, why would they have confidence in the process and outcome of provincial council elections in December or, eventually, of a referendum on the province’s status?’