Iraq’s Allawi could lose narrow poll lead

Baghdad, April 30: The winning coalition in Iraq’s national elections has charged the ruling alliance with using the courts to overturn the bloc’s slim victory and warned that political influence over judicial decisions could destabilise Iraq.

The order from Iraq’s Electoral Judicial Commission last week to manually recount ballots in Baghdad, and a subsequent ruling to disqualify at least one winning candidate from the Iraqiya list of former premier Ayad Allawi, could potentially erase Iraqiya’s two-seat lead over the State of Law coalition headed by incumbent prime minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Should this reversal occur, politicians and analysts fear a protracted period of political deadlock and possibly a return to sectarian tensions that could plunge Iraq into civil war.

In a statement released on April 27, the leadership of Iraqiya called on the head of the Supreme Judicial Council, which oversees judicial affairs, to protect the “judiciary from political influence, as this may have serious ramifications for the stability of the country”.

The coalition said it would hold to account those responsible for “distorting the election results by the appropriation of the electorate’s votes through malicious disqualification”.

Iraqiya said it was considering a formal request to the United Nations Security Council, the European Union, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the Arab League to press for a rerun of national elections in an “environment free of any political manipulation”.

“Iraqiya will hold legally liable those who are trying to undermine the political process and steal the voices of the people, harming Iraq’s security and its social peace and drawing it into the unknown,” the statement concluded.

Iraqiya has been negotiating with other parties to form a government since winning 91 seats – the most of any bloc – in the nationwide vote last month. If the reconfigured results shift the majority of seats to Maliki’s State of Law coalition, it will be a victory for the prime minister and a boost for his bid for a second term. State of Law won 89 of Iraq’s 325 parliamentary seats.

“The court is clearly targeting the Iraqiya list,” Usama al-Nujaifi, a senior Iraqiya leader, said. “This is another attempt to prevent Iraqiya from exercising its constitutional right to form the next government. It is one of many continuous attacks against Iraqiya. We will reconsider our participation in the political process if we find out that it will not be a truly democratic one.”

State of Law officials have strongly denied manipulating the courts or the electoral process.

“Iraq’s judiciary body is independent and so is the electoral commission. We don’t have any power over them. We practiced our right by going to the judiciary and it is up to the judiciary which complaint they accept and which they refuse. We do not interfere in judiciary,”Eisa al-Freji, a senior State of Law official from the Dawa Party, said.

“Recounting will not cause a dramatic change to the election results. There will be slight change, but recounting will assure Iraqi voters their right is protected and that law is the only authority in this country. No one can affect people’s will. Also, recounting will return our right to [form the government] and of course it will show people that we were right when we insisted on recounting,” Freji added.

But for many Iraqis, power struggles in Baghdad are all too familiar. Some are now worried that a war of words between the Shia-led ruling party and the mainly Sunni and secular Iraqiya could spill out into the streets.

“Things are going to be explained this way: the body that issued the ban and the recount is Shia, while the parties that will be hurt by these decisions are Sunni. So any possible progress in negotiations between Maliki’s [majority Shia] lists and Allawi’s Sunni and secular parties has become a very difficult, if not an impossible, option,” said Abdullah Jaafar , a political analyst and retired political science professor at Baghdad University.

“On the ground, the court’s decisions can only create more problems between the sects. Sunnis who voted for Iraqiya now believe that becoming part of the government is a distant dream. Their next step could be to take up arms again; they feel there is no other hope for them,” he added, referring to the Sunnis’ perception of disenfranchisement that fuelled sectarian violence after the 2005 elections.

A review panel of the Independent High Electoral Commission, IHEC, on April 26 upheld the recommendation of the controversial Accountability and Justice Committee, AJC, to throw out the votes cast for 52 candidates who stood in the March 7 vote. Among those banned, the only winning candidate was Iraqiya’s Ibrahim al-Mutlaq, who was disqualified for his alleged ties with the outlawed Baath Party of Saddam Hussein. The AJC is tasked with rooting out Baathist influence in Iraq.

Mutlaq won a parliamentary seat in Baghdad, in a constituency once held by his brother, the prominent Sunni secular politician Saleh al-Mutlaq, who was barred prior to the election by the AJC. An additional six to nine other winning candidates, all aligned with Iraqiya, are expected to be ruled on next week, according to local media.

The votes cast for any banned candidates will be discarded. Although candidates have a right to appeal against the disqualification, analysts see this option as extending the already lengthy period required to form a government. The United States, which plans to remove 50,000 combat troops from Iraq by August, has pressed for a new administration to be in place by the time of withdrawal.

“There have been obvious attempts to take the right to form a government away from Iraqiya. All of these moves will only prolong the negotiations needed to form a government. It is necessary to have a government in place as soon as possible in order to prevent terrorists from exploiting the political vacuum,” senior Iraqiya official Alia Nesaif told IWPR.

Last week, the same electoral court ruled in favour of State of Law’s appeal for a recount in Baghdad, where 70 parliamentary seats are at stake.

Several parties and coalitions appealed for recounts in various provinces, cities and voting stations, but were all denied by the elections commission.

Iraqiya officials have pushed for the recount to be expanded to all provinces and have expressed concern that the ballots may have been tampered with in the six weeks since the election.

The elections commission has stressed that the Baghdad recount will be monitored by all political parties and representatives from the UN and NGOs.

According to Iyad al-Kenani, an IHEC commissioner, the recount should take no more than seven to ten days once the process is approved by IHEC officials. He admitted to reluctance within the elections commission to the court-ordered process.

The commission “did not want to recount ballots. We think we did our job properly and there is no need for recounting. We refused requests made by other parties but an order from the Iraqi judicial authority is binding”, Kenani said.

“We can guarantee a transparent recounting process and we would like to assure all political parties that they can send representatives to attend the recounting sessions,” he added.

Even so, State of Law’s legal adviser, Tariq al-Harb, has little doubt about the results.

“We think that hand counting will be foolproof and it will put State of Law ahead of the other lists. State of Law will gain one or two seats from Iraqiya or the Iraqi National Alliance,” said Harb, who filed the recount appeal for the coalition.

“I have been asked by the head of State of Law (Maliki) to be in charge of this issue, and I will win,” he added.

This possibility has some observers concerned about the fallout from such an abrupt election turnaround that would reassign the right to initiate the next government.

“Political blocs should be aware of the dangerous direction in which Iraq is beginning to drift. If things keep going in this direction, the certain result is a serious intractable sectarian war,” Jaafar said.

“This time there will be no solution, and no way out.”