In an interview, the head of the Independent High Electoral Commission talks about why he was recently arrested for corruption, the difficulties his organisation works with daily and why he fears the emergence of a new dictatorship in Iraq.
Recently Faraj al-Haydari, head of the Independent High Electoral Commission (or IHEC), was arrested on charges of corruption. Many saw the arrest as yet another way in which the central Iraqi government was trying to take control over any, and all, independent organisations in public life.
Critics of Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, said the arrest was “part of a pattern of power grabs — his near total takeover of the security forces, a recent attempt to exert influence over the central bank and politically motivated arrests under the pretext of thwarting coup plots,” the New York Times wrote the week al-Haydari was arrested. “And it reinforces a narrative that Mr. Maliki is emerging as an authoritarian leader in the wake of the American military withdrawal,” they concluded.
NIQASH interviewed al-Haydari in his office at the IHEC; behind him on the wall were photographs of al-Haydari with various important personalities, such as the United Nations Secretary General. In front of him, al-Haydari told NIQASH, were difficult months of working out exactly what the IHEC’s role was, who the members were and whether there would ever be free and fair elections in Iraq again.
NIQASH: In mid-April, you and a colleague at IHEC were arrested on corruption charges. What is happening with that now?
Faraj al-Haydari: Actually the case isn’t closed yet. I was detained for three days because I had paid some of my employees a bonus of US$125 each. Yet there are other public officials who have been accused of embezzling billions – and they have yet to be arrested. I was released on bail of around US$12,000. But the case is still open and it’s been transferred to the criminal court. So it seems that will take a long time to resolve this. And that will impact IHEC’s credibility. I consider my arrest an assault on Iraq’s democracy.
NIQASH: Why do you think it’s an “assault”, as you call it?
Al-Haydari: There is no doubt that the arrest of IHEC’s head has an impact on the Iraqi people. By arresting me, they didn’t intend to attack me as a person, rather they wanted to target the IHEC because it’s a professional institution that doesn’t succumb to political pressure. Some political parties or blocs have tried to undermine the IHEC’s integrity. And obviously this [arresting the IHEC’s head] will have an impact on the voter.
NIQASH: How do you think the international community see the arrests?
Al-Haydari: The international community is well aware of the significant role that we played during electoral processes in this country and it is also very well aware of the purpose of the attacks against us.
NIQASH: The IHEC has come in for investigation and questioning more than once though, over the past couple of years.
Al-Haydari: This is true. We’ve been questioned twice: once after the provincial elections of 2009 and once after the latest federal elections in 2010. In 2009, the questions were very objective. We explained and clarified some issues to the MPs and we were able to show them that way we conducted our work was proper. But in 2010, the questioning was not objective at all. But MPs still had faith in us. However those same political parties continue to target the IHEC unfairly – they only want to undermine our work.
NIQASH: The current IHEC’s mandate expired at the end of April and the Iraqi Parliament was supposed to elect a new group of members. But this hasn’t happened.
Al-Haydari: Unfortunately the current political conflicts have had their impact on all state institutions. That’s why nothing is moving ahead. On the contrary, it’s going backwards.
NIQASH: You and the other members of the IHEC are supposedly representative of different political blocs. How are you able to work without bias?
Al-Haydari: We represent the basic components of Iraqi society, not the political blocs – and that is despite the fact that we have been nominated by them. Everyone can see that we have been able to resist political pressure and perform our work in a neutral and professional way. Even international bodies and the UN could testify to this. In fact, I would say that it is those qualities – our professionalism and neutrality – that had led to the IHEC coming under continuous attack, questioning by politicians and legal assaults.
NIQASH: You’ve mentioned that you are worried about upcoming elections. Why have the provincial elections in Iraqi Kurdistan, scheduled for September this year, been postponed?
Al-Haydari: Because the conditions for holding elections are not present. The new members of IHEC would have been overseeing those elections but the current members’ mandate only lasts for another three months. Additionally, IHEC’s powers have not been well defined. So there’s a constitutional vacuum. The failure to formulate a new board for the IHEC, and my arrest, are all factors that have had an impact.
NIQASH: And you’re also worried about the upcoming provincial elections for the rest of Iraq – even though there’s still plenty of time. They’re not due to be held until January next year.
Al-Haydari: I have concerns about any future elections in Iraq. With the provincial elections, the IHEC will need at least six months to prepare itself properly. To do this we need a budget, we need new members and we need to see the electoral laws properly formulated. Unfortunately none of this is happening – which is why I feel pessimistic.
NIQASH: Have you conveyed your concerns to the politicians in charge?
Al-Haydari: The Parliament and the Cabinet is aware. The electoral law is still being debated in Parliament and in order for it to pass, we need to see some sort of consensus between the various different blocs. But given existing conditions in Iraq, and existing disagreements between those blocs, this is going to be very difficult to arrive at.
NIQASH: Indeed, some critics of the current government have accused the government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of trying to control the IHEC and other independent bodies. Your thoughts on those accusations?
Al-Haydari: The Iraqi constitution is clear. Chapter Four of the Constitution specifies the different powers of various independent commissions. And even just from the name given to those bodies, it’s clear they should be independent.
Their mission is to monitor the government’s performance and if the government controls the IHEC, the Central Bank and the Commission on Integrity, they won’t be able to carry out that work.
How could they, if they come under government control? So far though, I believe that the IHEC has resisted all the political pressure exerted upon us and that we’ve maintained our impartiality.
NIQASH: It seems as though every time Iraq holds an election, there’s a different law formulated for it. But in other countries, this doesn’t happen. So why does it keep happening here?
Al-Haydari: Electoral laws determine the type of political system a nation has and laws that work in some countries, may not work in others. Iraq is still an emerging democracy and amendments to our laws are justified. Having said that though, these amendments should not be being made to serve the political interests of whoever is in charge.
NIQASH: Are you saying that some political blocs are manipulating electoral laws to suit their interests?
Al-Haydari: Certainly. Some of the bigger political blocs are trying to come up with electoral laws that serve their interests and allow them to stay in power. And some of the laws being formulated are also very hard for us to actually implement.
NIQASH: Another of the IHEC’s biggest problems is the fact that you’ve had to supervise elections in a country that hasn’t held a real census of the population for years. Yet you’ve supervised several elections. How do you get around this?
Al-Haydari: It’s true that one of the main pillars of a successful election is a census. Unfortunately this is something that hasn’t been resolved in Iraq. Since 2004 the IHEC has been reliant on statistics from the Ministry of Trade and we review them every six months.
However there are still a lot of disagreements about how many voters live in each area. So I would stress that we urgently need a census taken – and not just for the sake of elections but also for reasons of finance and economy, the environment and for state services, among others.
NIQASH: And finally, your thoughts on how democracy is progressing in Iraq, despite a plethora of political conflicts and problems?
Al-Haydari: I call on all Iraqi politicians to express their belief that the era of dictatorship and the one-party rule has come to an end in Iraq.
International experience shows that democracy is way toward peaceful coexistence and political stability. So I call upon all politicians to take real, genuine steps toward this goal.
In fact, I consider that the elections held in Iraq after 2003 are actually one of the country’s only achievements in this respect. I think we’ve failed in so many other respects.
And if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity for democracy now, there is real risk of a new dictatorship in Iraq – which is something that the people of Iraq and the nation’s politicians should not tolerate.