New Election Officials: “Lots Of People Question Our Abilities”

By Mustafa Habib.

This article was originally published by Niqash. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iraq Business News.

In September the new members of the much debated Independent High Electoral Commission were finally elected. Some say they’re not up to the job. But their spokesperson says they will run Iraq’s 2013 elections on time.

There has been plenty of debate and discussion as to whether Iraq’s provincial elections will be held according to schedule early next year.

And new members have recently been elected to Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (or IHEC), the body tasked with overseeing elections in the country.

The last committee departed somewhat ignominiously with several members, including the chairman, charged with corruption. The former chairman has said that he was not guilty and that the charges were a threat to the independence of the IHEC.

The United Nations’ Special Representative for Iraq, Martin Kobler, has emphasized the importance of the IHEC, saying that “IHEC is the most important guarantee of holding free and fair elections in Iraq, fundamental for safeguarding and sustaining the democratic process.”

The commission is now composed of four Shiite Muslims, two Sunnis, two Kurds and a Turkmen woman; the new head of the committee is a Kurd, Sarbast Mustafa Rasheed Amedi.

NIQASH talked to IHEC’s spokesperson, Safaa al-Moussawi, who is on the committee and who is also a member of current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s mainly Shiite Muslim, ruling party, about how the new commission is coping and whether elections would indeed be held as planned early next year.

NIQASH: You are part of a group of new IHEC members chosen in September. Do you actually have the ability to successfully administer these upcoming elections?

Al-Moussawi: Yes, I know there are a lot of people who question our abilities. But they don’t know the facts. They don’t realize that seven out of ten of the new IHEC members were working for IHEC in the field and that they’ve actually been in charge of things in past elections.

It has given the IHEC a new impetus because the majority of the members have experience in administering elections. Additionally I would like to add that it took many months to form the new IHEC; the process was competitive as we received literally thousands of applications.

NIQASH: Take us through the time frame leading up to the elections next year.

Al-Moussawi: There will be many phases. IHEC has received the applications of those who want to take part in the elections. The applications should be checked and approved and then the electoral rolls will be updated.

Following that we will receive the lists of candidates from the various political parties and we’ll check them too. Before the actual election day – which is currently scheduled for April 20, 2013 – there will be campaigns and these should take a month. That will be followed by a counting of the votes and an announcement of the preliminary results.

After that we will consider any appeals or objections. And when the latter have been decided upon, and the results decided upon, then the final results will be announced and ratified by Iraq’s highest judicial authority.

NIQASH: But the electoral law hasn’t yet been amended by the Iraqi Parliament. Isn’t that going to delay your work, in turn?

Al-Moussawi: That’s true. [Iraq’s Supreme Court] overturned a paragraph of the law related to how vacant seats were allocated and the law was re-submitted to Parliament for endorsement. For the time being, this article doesn’t affect our work though. But the nearer the elections get, the more it will.

That’s why IHEC is calling on the Iraqi Parliament to speed up the process and pass this law, so that elections can be held on time.

NIQASH: Has the budget for elections been approved?

Al-Moussawi: Every electoral process requires a budget. After a lengthy study, IHEC concluded that we need around US$150 million to run this election. The Iraqi government say they will pay this amount in instalments, when we ask for them.

When the new IHEC was formed, the government paid US$10 million dollars and just a few days ago, another US$25 million was transferred to IHEC. This process will continue – so we don’t have any financial problems with our work at all.

NIQASH: How many political entities are going to participate in the elections?

Al-Moussawi: There will be 243 political entities participating in the upcoming provincial elections. Among these are 16 independents. The rest are political parties or blocs from right around the country.

Some of these are participating in Iraqi elections for the first time.

From Nov. 5 until Nov. 25 anyone who wanted to take part could register. And we will start the process of registering the various constituents of the political blocs soon – that is, those who want to be part of one list.

There are 447 seats on provincial councils from all around Iraq. Each province is allocated a number of seats depending on the size of its population. For example, there are 58 seats in Baghdad because it has a population of around seven million. In Karbala there are only 27 seats because it has a population of about two million.

NIQASH: IHEC apparently plans to use population data based on Iraq’s ration card system.

Al-Moussawi: IHEC uses ration card data, as collected by the Ministry of Commerce, for several reasons. Firstly, it’s one of the documents in Iraq that is credible and reliable. Secondly, the ration card system is fairly accurate about how many Iraqis there are and where they live [because they need to be registered in their places of residence to receive the ration card benefits].

Since 2003, there’s been no accurate census information gathered by the Ministry of Planning. The information they do have is outdated and it’s not accurate enough to allow us to update the electoral rolls

We are however using Ministry of Planning information to ascertain how many seats each electoral district should have.

NIQASH: That doesn’t seem to make much sense. And the government has also managed to postpone a genuine census every time one was mooted.

Al-Moussawi: I don’t know why that’s happened. Maybe there are political reasons but they could just as well be technical or logistical. I do know that a census in Iraq would be very useful – not just for electoral reasons but also when it comes to development and reconstruction.

NIQASH: When will the process of updating the electoral rolls begin?

Al-Moussawi: A few days ago, IHEC approved the appointment of employees in electoral registration centres right round the country. There will be around 800 centres and the process of registration will begin on Dec. 9 and then continue for a month.

NIQASH: Apparently there will be no elections held in the disputed territory of Kirkuk though. Could you explain this?

Al-Moussawi: The city of Kirkuk has a special status according to the election law. This isn’t actually anything new, it was the same during previous elections too.

However there’s been an increase in political voices demanding that elections be held there and we have received a letter from Parliament saying it will issue a special election law for Kirkuk. However that law has yet to be passed – until it is, the situation remains the same: no elections in Kirkuk.

NIQASH: Before every election, there’s always a debate on which candidates are covered by the Accountability and Justice Law, which basically says that former members of Saddam Hussein’s political party, the Baath Party, can’t stand for election. So will that law be applied during these elections too?

Al-Moussawi: For sure. That’s a legal issue that IHEC cannot overlook. Part of the conditions for candidacy are that the Accountability and Justice Commission [the body charged with vetting officials and politicians who were suspected of having current or past links with the Baath party] doesn’t object to you standing for office.

We are coordinating with the Accountability and Justice Commission and we’ll send a list of candidates names to them; they will then notify us if there is a problem.

NIQASH: Will these elections involve international observers?

Al-Moussawi: Absolutely. Two days ago, IHEC started receiving applications from international organizations who wish to register as observers. Internationally, organisations like the United Nations, the European Union and a number of Arab organizations will have a strong presence and will comment on elections.

We’re also registering local observers. All of this will ensure the integrity of the elections.

NIQASH: Provincial elections are very important for the various political blocs in Iraq. Is IHEC coming under any pressure from these yet?

Al-Moussawi: IHEC is always accused of succumbing to political pressure but it’s just not true. We’ve gone so far as to meet with many political leaders and to stress the importance of our independence. Any attempt to interfere with our work just reflects negatively on everyone.

NIQASH: And finally, how optimistic are you that the elections can be held according to schedule – that is, on April 20 next year?

Al-Moussawi: We have actually already come up with a time line delineating the different phases before the election. Until now, we’ve been able to stick to schedule and up until now, all the other official bodies have been supporting us and giving us what we need.

So yes, barring any emergencies, I am optimistic that elections will be able to be held on the scheduled day.