Iraq Pulse

Demand for reform reaches Iraq's electoral commission

Article Summary
A group of Iraqi parliamentarians wants to dissolve the Independent High Electoral Commission, but no satisfactory mechanism for selecting a new commission has been offered.

BAGHDAD — A group of Iraqi legislators plans to submit a petition to the speaker of parliament requesting the deposition of executive council members of the Independent High Electoral Commission with an eye toward the commission's dissolution. The group objects to the commission having been formed based on the quota system, as a result of members being nominated by the parliament, and thus in a corruptive manner. More than 100 members of parliament from the Al-Ahrar bloc, affiliated with the cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Reform Front, close to former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, signed the petition July 19.

The move, coming less than a year before local elections, seems to have become a ritual preceding every election. This time, the demand is being packaged as part of the ongoing push for political reforms. At a protest in Baghdad on July 15, Sadr, leader of the Sadrist movement, had called for the commission to be dismissed because of its basis in the partisan, sectarian quota system. He is calling for a technocratic electoral commission with members appointed by the judiciary, a proposal that would require new legislation.

On July 19, Rasoul al-Taei of Al-Ahrar said in a statement, “The MPs who signed the request are collecting evidence and documents for dossiers to prove [individual] corruption and that the commission’s head and council members are not professional [experts].” He also said, “This cannot overlook the possibility that the commission’s council members are subordinate to well-established political parties, based on which the commission’s executive council was formed.”

Although accusations of corruption have been made against members of the commission, and repeated demands have been made for the nonsectarian selection of electoral commission members, exactly how a new commission should be selected remains undecided. As an example of accusations against members of the commission, some critics point to Faraj al-Haidari, a former commission head who was accused of bribing public employees to vote for a particular party in the 2010 elections. The judiciary's Commission of Public Integrity detained Haidari for a time, but the charges against him were never proven.

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Since 2005, each parliamentary bloc has submitted nominees for the commission's nine-member executive council based on its share of seats in the parliament, thus giving larger blocs increased chances of having their preferred candidates selected. After the nominations, the full parliament votes on the nominees. There is no term limit for the commission sitting as a whole or for its individual members. Requests for changes to the commission must be presented to the parliament speaker, who then organizes for a vote on the measure.

Member of parliament Sajida Afandi, from the Sunni Iraqi Forces Alliance, told Al-Monitor, “[My bloc] does not mind if the commission is called for depositions and held accountable in case there are charges of corruption. This is the parliament’s job, and if it is proved that these charges are true, the commission should be dismissed.”

She further said, however, “In light of the calls to put an end to the quota system and form technocratic institutions, we wonder how a new electoral commission will be formed and whether the blocs will agree to not being represented on the commission’s council.” Responding to her own statement, Afandi said, “The commission will be formed the same way as before, particularly since the local elections are scheduled for April 2017, and there is no way a technocratic commission can be formed.”

The demand to rein in sectarian and partisan corruption in government through political reform has been ongoing since August 2015, but it has thus far failed to result in even a single minister being replaced, because the parliamentary blocs are committed to the posts they control. This dynamic is why the seats on the electoral commission will likely not emerge as an exceptional case. The parliamentary blocs will not accept being excluded from any state institution or body if they prevent it.

Meanwhile, the Kurdistan Alliance has not made a final decision regarding the dismissal or replacement of the current commission. Kurdistan Alliance legislator Saman Fattah told Al-Monitor, “The Kurdistan Alliance will decide following the commission’s depositions. We do not mind calling any of the state officials for depositions, in the case that the depositions are designed to combat corruption and are due to violations of the law.”

Fattah, however, ruled out the possibility of forming a new electoral commission that “does not include representatives of all the Iraqi components.” He said, “It would cause [the commission] to be subject to criticism and be limited to a particular political, ethnic or religious group, which is totally unacceptable.”

The commission has rejected the accusation that it is somehow corrupt due to how it was formed. In a July 18 statement, the commission expressed its “shock at some of the MPs' efforts to collect signatures to dismiss the commission, contrary to the law and constitution.” It further stated, “This would result in a constitutional vacuum under the difficult circumstances the country faces and would open the door wide to all possibilities.”

The commission is determined to carry on with its work, including organizing upcoming elections. At a July 20 news conference, the electoral commission chair, Sarbast Mustafa, said, “The political parties’ registration law gives the commission the right to monitor the parties.” He added, “The Political Parties’ Affairs Department will be working on registering and monitoring the parties as well as their funding methods.” He also said, “There are 45 requests to establish 13 new parties.”

The issue driving the electoral commission's composition is whether it is fair that the commission consists of people nominated by the blocs that won the previous elections, given that the commission oversees future electoral campaigns, organizes elections and accepts or rejects candidates and lists. This subjects lists and entities not in the parliament to the supervision and authority of those entities already in the legislature, as they actually control the commission.

If the Iraqi parties truly feel obligated to take into consideration the demand for reform and for technocratic institutions, it would appear that they would move to introduce and agree on a new mechanism to select an electoral commission in a way that ensures the appointment of nonpartisan members to the commission based on their competence, experience and integrity rather than party, ethnic or religious affiliation. It would be a first step in moving away from the partisan, sectarian quota system in the government and independent state bodies.

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Found in: sectarianism, iraqi parliament, government reform, election commission, corruption

Omar Sattar is an Iraqi journalist and author specializing in political affairs. He has worked for local and Arab media outlets and holds a bachelor’s degree in political science.

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