Thursday, October 18, 2012

Former Election Commission Chairman Cleared Of Corruption Charges, New Election Commission Appointed

Iraq’s Election Commission is an independent body created by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to run the country’s voting system. In 2012, the Commission was struck by two political controversies. First, early in the year, the head of the Commission, and some of his staff were charged and convicted of graft. Then, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki tried to get more of his followers onto the Commission by expanding the number of commissioners. That attempt failed, and recently the Commission chief’s conviction was overturned. These are two more examples of how the Premier has attempted to assert his control over government institutions.
Former Election Commission head Haydari was convicted of bribery, but then had that overturned by an appeals court. Whole affair seemed like intimidation tactic by PM Maliki (Niqash)
In early 2012, the Election Commission was embroiled in a corruption case. On April 12, State of Law parliamentarian Hanan Fatlawi announced that the Commission chief Faraj al-Haydari, and two of his staff members, Karim al-Tamimi and Osama al-Ani would be arrested on corruption charges. They were said to have given $130 in bonuses to State Property Commission members in return for government land. A court found the three guilty, and they received one year suspended sentences. On October 16, Haydari announced that an appeals court had cleared him of his charges, and overturned his conviction. This was a very unsettling and unusual turn of events. First, the warrants were made public, not by an Iraqi court or judge, but by a lawmaker from the prime minister’s list. Second, Iraq is notorious for corruption. Allegedly giving $130 to some bureaucrats hardly seemed a serious case, especially when it involved the head of the Election Commission. The fact that the conviction was overturned might be a sign that the charges were trumped up to begin with. Haydari told the press that his arrest was an attack upon Iraqi democracy, and aimed at undermining the independence of the Commission. Although he didn’t say it publicly, he was likely pointing the finger at Prime Minister Maliki who has been at odds with the Commission since the 2010 parliamentary elections.

Maliki has been targeting the Election Commission since the 2010 parliamentary vote. To the premier’s shock, his State of Law list came in second place in that round of balloting. He immediately began blaming the Election Commission, accusing them of helping his rival, the Iraqi National Movement, win the most seats in the legislature. Commission members were called in for questioning by parliament afterwards, on what were considered political grounds. In June 2011, Maliki ordered the Commission to suspend its work, so that it could be reformed. It refused to comply however, with Haydari saying that it was an independent body that only answered to parliament. The next month, members of State of Law attempted to hold a no confidence vote against the Commission on corruption charges, but failed. Too many of the other parties in parliament were afraid this was a power grab by Maliki to dismiss the Commission members, and put in his own people. What this chain of events showed was a concerted campaign by the premier to pressure the Commission to comply with his will.

Next, the prime minister attempted to increase the number of commission members, so that more of his followers could be appointed to it. When the Election Commission’s term expired in April, members of State of Law suggested that the number of commissioners be expanded from nine to 15. On September 17, parliament voted down that proposal, and elected eight new members. Ten days later, the final member was appointed. The new chairman was Sarbas Mustafa Rashid who is a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). This was a defeat for Maliki. First, he failed to increase the amount of commissioners. Before, four members of the Commission were from the Shiite religious parties, one from Maliki’s Dawa Party, one from the Supreme Council, one from the Sadrists, and one from the Fadhila party. That number remained at four on the new Commission, although Dawa now has two seats, instead of one. That still does not give it much say. Second, the KDP belongs to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani who is one of the strongest opponents of the prime minister. His election to be the new chief meant either a Sadrist or Supreme Council member of the Commission voted for him, two parties that are nominally aligned with State of Law. Parliament therefore was not willing to go along with Maliki’s suggestion of expanding the Commission, and the premier’s own allies were unwilling to give him carte blanche over future elections either.

For the last few years, Prime Minister Maliki has attempted to increase his sway over the government. His moves against the Election Commission were just another example. He tried to disband the Commission after his list lost the 2010 election, the Commission head was arrested and convicted, and then State of Law tried to appoint more of its members as commissioners. Even though Maliki failed at all these moves, it will make the Commission think twice before it makes a decision that might cross the prime minister. If they do, they could come under the same type of relentless pressure that the old commissioners faced. In this game of hardball politics, Maliki is relying upon intimidation as much as anything. If he can’t win outright, he can always coo and cajole his opponents, in the hopes that they will relent, and not stand in his way. If he’s able to do that with the Election Commission it could be a dramatic step backwards for the Iraqi government since it might have a negative affect upon future balloting in the country.


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