Angry Iraqi Kurds file election complaints with Baghdad

The voting fracas has undermined faith in the Kurdistan Region's political process

Barham Salih, Former Prime Minister of Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government and Head of the Coalition for Democracy and Justice with his wife show their ink-stained fingers after casting their votes at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq May 12, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal
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The main Kurdish political parties in Iraq are exchanging accusations of widespread voter intimidation and vote rigging, even after Baghdad announced final results from the May 12 elections.

Six Kurdish opposition parties are demanding a rerun of the election in the autonomous region and adjacent disputed territories. Several parties have filed formal complaints with the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) in Baghdad.

While the allegations are yet to be matched by hard evidence, the fracas is undermining faith in the political process in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which remains in political turmoil following a failed independence referendum last year.

Ahead of the elections, some observers predicted that public discontent over unmet political promises, unpaid civil salaries and a lack of services could prove a boon to new parties promising to tackle cronyism, while precipitating a backlash against the two dominant political parties in the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI).

Instead the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (KDP) – both of which are led by dynastic families who command armed wings and patronage networks of hardcore supporters – performed well, winning 38 per cent and 25 per cent respectively.

The PUK party won back its home province of Sulaimaniya, opposition heartland which it had lost in 2009 to the breakaway Gorran Movement.


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Smaller parties received fewer votes than expected, even at polling stations where they say they knew they had strong support.

“The discrepancies are so unreal,” said Christine van den Toorn, director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. “A lot of this is understandable by the low turnout but there is a margin which is absolutely inexplicable.”

On the evening following polls closing, the Gorran Movement, the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ), the Kurdistan Islamic League, Kurdistan Islamic Union, the Kurdistan Islamic Movement and the Kurdistan Communist party jointly announced their rejection of the results and called for a rerun of the election in the KRI and adjacent disputed territories.

Electoral observers from the CDJ, which is headed by former Iraqi deputy prime minister Barham Salih (who also founded the American University of Iraq), described a widespread pattern of voter intimidation and discrepancy between electronic ballots and manual recounts which favoured the PUK.

“These discrepancies, considered alongside highly reported voting irregularities—especially related to tampering with the electronic system and ballots – warrant an investigation and recount,” a report published by the CDJ said.

The Kurdistan Institute for Elections, an NGO close to opposition groups, reported issues with electronic voting machines at polling stations it monitored in Sulaimaniya, saying the vote “did not fulfill any of the requirements of an election as stipulated by international standards.”

In the disputed city of Kirkuk, Arab and Turkmen demonstrators gathered outside election offices last Wednesday to protest the high share of PUK votes in the oil-rich province.

The PUK and KDP have also made their own allegations of voter fraud, the PUK accusing the KDP of voter fraud in Nineveh and Sinjar, while the KDP criticized the IHEC for the disappearance of votes in Sinjar.

“The IHEC’s main office in Baghdad put pressure on the directors in Erbil and Duhok to stand against the KDP and attempt to decrease its votes,” a KDP statement said, according to a report in local media.

A number of votes cast by displaced Yezidis from the Sinjar area were in fact not counted, according to a media officer for IHEC in Duhok. Fewer than half of the ballots from 197 polling stations around Sinjar had been counted before Baghdad announced the final vote, Sagvan Derashi told The National. "I've informed Baghdad of that."

On Monday, IHEC announced that it had cancelled the ballots of 103 polling stations in five provinces across the country, including in Erbil and Nineveh, where Sinjar is located.

The announcement followed a statement by UN special envoy to Iraq Jan Kubis on Thursday calling on IHEC to carry out an immediate investigation into allegations of voting irregularity.

Opposition parties previously accused the KDP and PUK of widespread vote rigging following the 2009 parliamentary and presidential elections in the KRI.

Even without being substantiated, the allegations have damaged faith in the electoral process and the KRI’s ruling parties. “People are walking around saying, ‘My vote was stolen,’” said Ms van den Toorn. “They’re saying they will never vote again.”