Shiite scholar warns that Iraq poll must be perceived as free and fair

Ammar al Hakim says process is critical test for the country's s fledgling democratic system.

BAGHDAD // Ammar al Hakim, the leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), said today's Iraqi elections could usher in a new era for the country, but will damage its future if not perceived as free and fair. Speaking on the eve of the country's elections, seen as a critical test for the fledgling democracy, the Shiite scholar pointed to demonstrations and violence in Iran last year in the wake of the presidential election as an example of what could happen if the vote is not perceived to be transparent.

"The success of the process of the elections is much more important than the success of any particular party," Mr al Hakim said. "We have seen in some of the countries around us that when elections take place in an unfair and non-transparent way, what happens. And things in Iraq will be much worse because of the variety of components we have here." Mr al Hakim said the "huge numbers" of police and army personnel whose names were not on lists for Thursday's early vote and the printing of an additional seven million ballots for today's election concerned him.

ISCI, which is currently the largest party in parliament but suffered significant losses in provincial elections, is standing for election in a largely sectarian Shiite coalition, the Iraq National Alliance (INA), along with the Sadrists, followers of the militant cleric Muqtada al Sadr. Cries of foul play and appeals are expected in the wake of the elections, which will determine the make-up of the government for the coming four years.

"The political parties try to find any issues to talk about so if they lose they can say it's fraud," said Faraj al Haydari, chairman of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC). "To be frank, if one political bloc wins all the others will oppose it. I'm ready for a fight." Monitors raised concerns with Thursday's vote as IHEC was forced to open special ballot boxes after as many as 150,000 voters were left off rolls. Mr al Haydari passed the blame to the ministries of defence and interior for not providing full lists of employees and said he did not expect any similar problems today.

The INA plans to release its own electoral results, compiled by its 21,000 monitors. If national results do not tally "we will not accept the result" said Qusay al Suhail, a member of the Sadrists' political committee. Mr al Hakim said he expects the INA to come out with the largest proportion of the vote, but other polls point to the incumbent Nouri al Maliki's State of Law coalition, as the strongest contender. No party is expected to win a majority, meaning that the results will be followed by weeks of negotiations and deal-making through which many of the current party alliances may not last.

Mr al Suhail said that if the Sadrists perform well they plan to be the party that fields the candidate for prime minister, something that may not sit well with ISCI. "The alliance is concentrating on our programme rather then who will lead the team," said Mr al Hakim. "We want to build strong institutions rather then strong individuals and we have agreed on certain mechanisms on how to choose a prime minister at the next stage."

Formed by Ammar al Hakim's uncle, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al Hakim, while he was in exile in Iran in 1982, the party has close ties to its neighbour, and some have raised concerns about the level of Iranian influence in Iraq under an INA-dominated government. Mr al Hakim stressed that Iraq is first and foremost an Arab country, but one with a large Shiite population. "Iran will look after its own interests [in Iraq]," said Mr al Hakim. "Other countries look after their own interests. Turkey has made huge efforts to see that Iraqi Turkomen play a better role and no one objects to that."

He said the party's view has not always been in line with Iran's and would disagree on anything that was not in the interest of the Iraqi people. He gave the example of the negotiations over the timetable for the withdrawal of US troops, which Iran wanted rejected, but ISCI backed. "ISCI does enjoy good relations with Iran and we don't have anything to hide," said Mr al Hakim. "We are keen to build relations with all countries in the region even though this process may take patience." Mr al Hakim took over the reins of ISCI last year after the death of his father and its political influence has been waning ever since. It won just 52 of 440 seats in last year's provincial elections. Many complain the dominant party failed to deliver promises in the provision of services.

"Many of the people had big expectations for services in the provinces, despite the difficulties," said Mr al Hakim. Their alliance with the Sadrists, who made significant gains in the provincial vote, may bolster ISCI's chances in today's polling. Despite the largely sectarian nature of the INA coalition, Mr al Hakim said progress had been made since 2005 and Iraqi politics is increasingly becoming secular.

"We should admit that we've taken a step forward, we have managed to form blocks that contain some different elements, even if there is a noticeable weight to a certain entity or group," he said. "We hope that maybe in the next four years we are going to see more progress."