Locals in Iraqi Kurdistan check the electoral rolls. (photo: سفين اسماعيل )
May is going to be a big month in Iraqi Kurdistan too, as locals in the semi-autonomous northern region won’t just vote in federal elections, they will also vote in their regional elections. After the traumatic events of late last year – the ill-fated referendum on secession from Iraq and the ensuing drawback of Kurdish forces from territory they had supervised until then – it will be the first chance for Iraqi Kurdish voters to express their opinions on local politicians at the ballot box.
However, according to some politicians and election observers, there is a problem in Iraqi Kurdistan: The electoral rolls are not up to date and possibly even fraudulent. Critics say there are potentially thousands of extra or false names on voter registries and that these could be used to manipulate regional elections.
Kurdish electoral rolls are prepared using the national ration card system – these were cards given out to all Iraqis until 1996 to ensure food supplies during international sanctions imposed on the Saddam Hussein-led government.
During our visit to Baghdad we asked Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to let the IHEC organize the [Kurdish] elections instead.
Opposition parties say the electoral rolls are out of date and that the system contains up to as many as 400,000 fake names.
A non-governmental institute, the Pay Institute for Education and Development - headed by a former MP for one of the region’s major parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK - says that their research indicates there might be as many as 900,000 false names registered. That could equal about 40 seats in the Kurdish parliament.
Those who criticize the electoral rolls say that they contain the names of deceased voters as well as names of Kurds who live outside of the semi-autonomous region, in other parts of Iraq, as well as Kurds who actually live in other countries, who should not be eligible to vote in regional elections.
They may well be right. For example, statistics from the government health departments appear to show that 220,000 individuals in the region died between 2001 and 2017. However, the electoral commission has only managed to delete 440 names of deceased voters from the electoral register. There are also an estimated 42,000 names of individuals who, according to their dates of birth, are now aged well over 90.
According to the electoral supervisors at the opposition Islamic parties, there are also many duplicate names where locals appear to be registered to vote in two different provinces. Perhaps they moved but did not take their names off one or other registry. There are between 100,000 and 150,000 of these.
It is not only the opposition parties who have problems with the electoral rolls. “We too have our doubts about the numbers,” Shirwan Zarar Nabi, the spokesperson for the Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission, or IHERC, says; the committee is tasked with running elections in Iraqi Kurdistan. “And we are working on correcting and cleaning up the voter registry,” he told NIQASH.
The head of IHERC, Karwan Jalal, says there is nothing to be concerned about. “There are a number of questionable names on the registry,” he concedes. “But the problem has been exaggerated and we only have a little work to do to clean up the lists.”
The IHERC itself acknowledges that there are around 400,000 suspicious entries on local electoral rolls, enough to fill around 15 seats in parliament.
Opposition parties don’t feel particularly confident about IHERC though. “Their officials have been promising to clean up the voter registers for years but they have not taken any real action to do so,” says Hawzhin Omer, a member of one of Iraqi Kurdish opposition Islamic parties, working on their electoral oversight committee.
Omer also believes that the region’s ruling political parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK – are interfering in IHERC’s affairs. “They won’t allow the electoral rolls to be corrected,” he complains.
Unlike the opposition politicians, the KDP and PUK have both denied the problem exists, saying that if there are false names on the voter registries, then they are not PUK and KDP supporters. They also say that if there is any electoral fraud going on, then all of Iraqi Kurdistan’s parties are to blame.
Senior KDP member, Khasro Goran, who’s in charge of his party’s election commission, denied any interference in the IHERC’s work. “We support the voter registry being cleaned up as quickly as possible,” he told NIQASH. “Many political parties don’t trust the registry and they want all the names checked.”
“These extra names could change the election results so IHERC must put a lot of effort into ensuring parties get accurate vote counts,” says Zamanko Jalal, a member of Iraqi Kurdish opposition party, the Change movement, who coordinates their electoral oversight committee.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s opposition parties have actually done more than just talk about their mistrust of the IHERC.
Recently representatives of the Change movement, the Kurdish Islamic parties and the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, a new party recently formed by local political heavyweight, Barham Salih, all went to Baghdad to hold talks with Iraqi politicians there.
According to the head of the delegation to Baghdad, which visited there January 4, one of the topics discussed was the IHERC.
The three parties wanted to have the IHERC dismissed and they discussed whether Iraq’s own electoral commission, the Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, would oversee Kurdish elections instead, delegation head and spokesperson for the Change movement, Shorsh Haji, told NIQASH.
“We – the Change movement – and the other parties have suspicions about the IHERC’s activities,” Haji said. “That’s why we don’t want it to oversee Kurdish elections. During our visit to Baghdad we asked Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to let the IHEC organize the elections instead.”
Baghdad is no friend of the IHERC, having issued arrest warrants for those on the commission because of the fact they carried out the – in Baghdad’s eyes, illegal – referendum on Kurdish independence in September last year.
The IHERC itself did not seem too concerned about these attempts to oust them from the job though.
“The IHERC was formed by the Kurdish parliament and its members were approved by the parliament,” says Handarin Mohammed Salih, who heads the IHERC office in Erbil. “Only parliament can decide our status.”
Until then the IHERC will continue its work, he told NIQASH, no matter what sorts of internal or external pressure are brought to bear on them.