On May 30, Iraqi authorities annulled votes cast at 1,021 of the nation’s 53,000 polling locations, in response to over 2,000 complaints of voting irregularities. 186 of these 1,021 voting stations were in Kirkuk, a city divided along ethnic lines, where disputes over the election results threaten to upset a fragile balance of power. Authorities must proceed carefully in order to avoid inciting violence, but also need to take action to ensure that elections remain fair and open.
On May 12, the Iraqi government introduced an electronic voting system to reduce electoral fraud. However, many people claim that the system has been corrupted. A significant number of the annulled votes were in Kirkuk, which has an enormously diverse population. Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, and Assyrians all claim ownership of the land, and as a result, the city has been on the brink of serious conflict for years.
The election of May 12 was for Iraq’s Council of Representatives, to which Kirkuk sends twelve delegates. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Kurdish party, won half of the seats, while the other half were divided between the Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) and the Kirkuk Arab Coalition. At face value, these results are unsurprising, as the Kurdish have the majority in this region. However, upon closer examination, the results begin to appear suspect. People, as a general rule, vote along ethnic lines. It is therefore surprising that the PUK won in several non-Kurdish areas, where the party is not known to have any prior support. Furthermore, Kurdish turnout was already low in comparison to past elections—some of the party’s recent decisions have not been popular. In light of all this, Turkmen and Arab coalitions are calling foul and have demanded that the government take action to investigate potential fraud.
The leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, Arshad Salihi, implored the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) to “prove its transparency by taking action against the largest case of electoral theft,” reported The New Arab. Furthermore, hundreds of ITF members are occupying the warehouses where ballot boxes are held, preventing the electoral commission from retrieving these ballots.
President Fuad Masum, a member of the PUK, claimed that annulling some of the poll results was “unconstitutional.” ITF deputy head Hassan Toran stated that “President Fuad Masum is defending the false results and using his position for partisan purposes.” He told Al-Monitor that “not responding to the demands of the Turkmen to manually recount the votes could ignite a crisis in the governorate.”
Falah Mashaal, former editor of the al-Sabah newspaper, said that “the crisis in Kirkuk is very serious, as it is related to the size of the administrative representation [of the different components] in the governorate. Turkmen believe that their representation rights are being rejected by the Kurds. Should the situation remain at a standstill, the crisis could shift down a conflictual path and unprecedented ethnic escalation, leading to an armed conflict that would end the relative calm that has been ongoing in the governorate for years.”
Nationally, voter turnout was dismally low – a mere 44%. It is therefore understandable that the government would want to avoid a time-consuming recount, which can frustrate and disillusion voters. Still, as Salihi warned, peace in Kirkuk could collapse if the Commission chose not to investigate these voting irregularities. On a broad scale, the government is cooperating with recount demands. They will perform a manual recount of 10% of the ballot boxes, and if the results of that recount differ by over 25% from the announced election results, they will perform a full manual recount. It is still unclear whether the ITF finds this solution satisfactory, and whether the Kurdish party still feels that it is unconstitutional. Regardless, one thing is very clear—the IHEC must proceed with caution to avoid inciting conflict.