Refocusing on the elections in Iraq: vote rigging and disenfranchising are the main threats

I watched a debate about the recent elections in the Kurdish region, the results showed the emergence of two opposition parties but not enough to pose serious threat to the domination of the KDP-PUK alliance. The existence of thousands of foreign observers was hailed but could not hide the claim of vote rigging and partiality of the elections commission; apparently, voting was extended in the province of Duhok and another center despite the fact that the booths were practically empty of voters, this act bought time for a sizable rigging away from the eyes of foreign observers. Claims of vote rigging are not new for Kurdistan; the Kurdish politician Faraydoun Rafik Hilmi and Turkuman parties accounts often describe details of horrific rigging during regional and state elections, particularly in Kirkuk.

The allegations of vote rigging is certainly not new in central and southern Iraq, with dramatic stories of ballot boxes disappearing or unexpectedly appearing, and recently news of formal classes conducted in Iran for instructions on how to cheat in the elections without being detected. Of course, neighboring Iran with its cross-boarder influence has plenty of (unexamined) evidence of rigging, protest marches across the world call for UN supervision over its elections. Rigging is serious for two main reasons; first because of its scale, adding rigged ballot boxes is a simple unobtrusive act by the ruling authorities which can bring in millions of votes, second because of the practice of turning a blind eye formalized in a leading example by the Bush administration; following allegations of fraud in the Iraqi parliamentary elections of December 2005/January 2006, the Bush administration appointed a three-man “international committee” to examine and arbitrate over the elections, the opposition parties found out after giving their agreement under pressure to the arbitration that the international committee had no mandate to examine vote rigging. Recently, the Iranian chief of election monitoring claimed that his committee too did not have mandate to examine vote rigging. It will not be surprising if the Kurdish election monitors came to the same conclusion regarding their own mandate.

Another large scale vote grab is by effectively disenfranchising or discouraging the opposition. The over-representation of Kurdish vote and the skewed sectarian constitution resulted in winners and losers of votes en mass, effectively canceling the participation of other minorities in the political process. Intimidation and mass displacement makes it easy to disguise the uneven extreme hardship of opposition voters as sloppiness or oversight of the voting process. Future uncharted waters are coming soon: government sponsored census and elections without law reform, there is talk about limiting the votes to actual residents of Iraq at the time of the election, thus for whatever excuse the votes of millions of expatriate Iraqis who are not subject to local intimidation will be wasted, effectively disenfranchised.

Vote rigging and effective disenfranchising are not covered by foreign election monitors, their effects are so massive and could turn the elections to no more than a rubber stamp to strengthen and continue the rule of the incumbent, it is high time to refocus the attention to these two area instead of calling for generic free and fair elections, such a call can be diverted easily by creating committees with no real mandates or by inviting foreign individuals to see what the election organizers want them to see.

The responsibility of facing up to vote rigging and disenfranchising in Iraq lies squarely with the United States of America, the sponsor of the political process. It is up to the United States to assure the integrity of the census and elections, to hand them over to the UN with a Security Council mandate with the teeth to stop vote rigging and to open up participation instead of presenting humorous alternatives such as threatening to cut off and leave, like punishing your rival with admitting defeat.

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