BAGHDAD // The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, demanded a manual recount of votes yesterday, warning that a failure to do so risked undermining the country's fragile democracy and could even usher in a new era of violence. His statement, immediately dismissed as a threat by rivals and rejected by the independent electoral commission, came as partial tallies showed him locked in a tight race with the main contender, Ayad Allawi. With 95 per cent of the votes counted, Mr Allawi's Iraqiyya alliance holds a narrow lead of about 11,000 ballots over Mr al Maliki's State of Law coalition.
"There are demands from several political blocs to manually recount the votes and to protect the democratic experience and preserve the credibility of the political process," Mr al Maliki said. "I call on the high electoral commission to respond immediately to the demands of those blocs to preserve the political stability and prevent the security situation from deteriorating and avoid the return of violence."
The Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, made a similar call yesterday. "As the president of the state, authorised to preserve the constitution and to ensure justice and absolute transparency, I demand the independent high electoral commission [IHEC] recount the ballots manually starting from Sunday, March 21." It was Mr Talabani's first public intervention in a brewing storm over election results. His Kurdish political bloc is running narrowly behind Iraqiyya in the critical battle to win in the disputed northern city of Kirkuk. A failure to win a majority in Kirkuk would be a blow to Kurdish claims that it be annexed to their autonomous region, a step Mr Allawi adamantly opposes.
It remains a matter of contention as to whether either the prime minister or president has the authority to order a recount. The IHEC is independent of government control and final results must be approved by the Iraqi courts, also independent of the government and president. "We will not simply do a recount because of these demands," Qassim al Aboudi, an IHEC official, said in an interview yesterday. "There has to be a specific cause to justify such a recount and we have not yet seen any need for it.
"There have been complaints of impropriety and we are investigating all of those in accordance with procedures. The process is under way; it has not been completed." A recount could take place if there were discrepancies between computerised central results and results collected for individual polling stations when final crosschecks are made. Mr al Maliki had recently insisted the election was fair. International observers, the United Nations and Iraqi election-monitoring groups have said any irregularities would be insufficient to affect the results.
The sudden turnaround in Mr al Maliki's position was, his political opponents said, brought about by a realisation that he has not secured the easy victory he anticipated. But that charge was rejected by Hasan al Sined, a State of Law candidate. "We are demanding a recount now because there are problems with the results we are seeing from IHEC computers," he said. "Counting initially was going fairly, but now there are political parties adjusting the results. We are not blaming IHEC, but there has been manipulation by some parties."
Mr al Sined said the escalating dispute could turn into a national crisis. "A recount is essential. If it does not happen we will refuse to recognise the results," he said. Accurate counting would prove State of Law had won, he said. Iraqiyya is continuing to make similar claims on its own behalf. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a member of IHEC's staff told The National that estimates indicated Mr al Maliki's coalition would win 91 parliamentary seats, ahead of Iraqiyya's 90 seats. Iraq's proportional representation system collates votes by province, not nationally, which means the coalition with the largest slice of the national vote does not automatically secure the most seats.
According to the IHEC official, the Iraq National Alliance, a sectarian Shiite bloc, would be the third largest group with 65 seats, while the Kurdistani list would have 42. The coalition with the greatest number of parliamentary seats - there are 325 in total - will be asked to form the next government. With no single group getting a 163-seat absolute majority, the winning bloc will have to enter into partnership with at least one other group and more likely two or three.
Negotiations to form a ruling alliance are likely to take months, with the parties all looking to secure the best deal for themselves. Final results had been loosely scheduled for release by the end of this week although Mr al Aboudi of IHEC said no date had been set. Election officials have already been criticised for slow counting. It has been a fortnight since polling day. A manual recount, IHEC warned, would add further long delays.