The fate of Iraq’s latest elections has become fraught following a deliberate arson attack on the ballot boxes storage center in the Rusafa district of Baghdad on June 10.
The facility exposed to the fire contained some 1.1 million of the overall 1.8 million votes from the Baghdad constituency. Baghdad is crucial to forming power in Iraq’s parliament as the district holds 71 of the total 329 seats. Votes from the Rusafa district alone account for around 40 seats and could alter the course of the future government.
The extent of the ballot losses remains unknown, but the head of the Independent High Electoral Commission, Riyadh al-Badran, claimed June 11 that 95% of the boxes had escaped the flames. The commission also announced in a statement that it “possesses backup copies of the results in the national office in Baghdad.” Meanwhile, Iraq’s interior minister stated, “We have taken control of the situation.” He added that there was “no burning of any ballots,” and that only electronic counting and sorting devices were affected by the fire, not the ballots themselves. However, political forces have cast doubt on the credibility of these disparate claims, demanding that a full re-election be staged and warning that the country faces the risk of igniting civil war.
Following the fire, the speaker of the outgoing parliament, Salim al-Jabouri, called for “a redo of the elections that have been proved rigged, distorting the results and the will of the Iraqi people in a deliberate and dangerous manner. Those who contributed to this act of fraud and vandalism must be prosecuted.” Jabouri claimed that the incident was “planned [and] deliberately intended to conceal cases of fraud and falsification of votes and to deceive the Iraqi people, manipulating their choices and their will.”
However, Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr, whose Sairoon Alliance won the first tier in the election, expressed his opposition to restaging elections in a June 11 article, “Iraq in danger,” calling on all political parties to unite and advance toward forming a government. “Is it time we stand together for reconstruction or for us to burn the ballot boxes and restage elections for the sake of a seat or two?” he asked. Warning of attempts by some parties to ignite a civil war, he said that Iraq would not fall into what some who “sold two-thirds of Iraq want, which is a civil war” — a clear reference to a prior statement by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is accused of failing to prevent the country from falling into the hands of the Islamic State in 2014, that “civil wars usually occur after elections if results are challenged.”
Sadr's top aide also accused both winning and losing parties in the elections of participating in the arson attack, claiming, “The ballot boxes storage center fire was either aimed at forcing the restaging of elections or covering up fraud.”
The beneficiary of redoing the election would be the losing parties, which would attempt to recoup their losses in another opportunity to win votes, while any who won votes through rigging would benefit from a cover-up of electoral fraud.
In this complex situation, the Iraqi government faces no easy choices and only four options. It can completely cancel the election and restage it in conjunction with municipal elections in December. It can restage the vote only in the Rusafa district, where votes were affected by the fire, or nullify results from this district and count only the results from the rest of Iraq. Or it can proceed with the declared results, incorporating any slight changes that may occur after manual sorting and counting.
The first option appears unfeasible in light of official statements from the supervisory authority responsible for conducting the elections and overseeing the integrity of results.
Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for the prime minister, stated June 11 that the decision to rerun the election “is vested in the Federal Court, not the executive branch or any other party” — a clear comment on Jabouri's call for a redo. Similarly, Board of Commissioners member Saad Kakaee said, “The decision to cancel the election results following the fire does not lie in the hands of the Board of Commissioners but with those in the Judicial Council and the Federal Court.”
The Judicial Council previously announced that there is no straightforward legal provision that allows the restaging of elections. Meanwhile, the winning blocs are opposed to any rerun, as indicated by previous statements from Sadr and Sairoon Alliance leaders, as well as from the Fatah Alliance that ranked second. Fatah Alliance spokesman Karim Nuri said, “We do not support a restaging … the compromise is a recount.”
Nullifying the results from the Rusafa district — whether accompanied by another election in the area or not — would open the path for opposition from other blocs that claim fraud has occurred in their constituencies. Among them are Al-Wataniya of Ayad Allawi, who has called for a referendum on the fate of the elections, and Kurdish opposition blocs including the Movement for Change (Gorran), which has accused the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of widespread electoral fraud.
The only remaining option is to proceed with the manual counting of outstanding votes by the judiciary, which has already appointed nine judges to supervise the process. Yet such a solution is not expected to yield results that differ markedly from those previously announced.
In the past, such electoral differences had been resolved through political settlements that sought to satisfy losing parties that contest the election results, while avoiding provoking opposition from the winners who endorse them. After a settlement is secured, the outcome will be announced through a decision by the judiciary, and will not be easily contested by the disputing parties.