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Is Iraq Heading toward a Constitutional Crisis?

Filed under: Iraq

Is Iraq Heading toward a Constitutional Crisis?
The Baghdad warehouse complex where ballot boxes were stored. Fire fighters on the scene June 10, 2018. (Arab press)

The parliamentary Iraqi elections on May 12, 2018, ended with a surprise win for Muqtada al-Sadr’s “Sairoun” party list, which secured 54 seats out of the 329 that constitute the Iraqi parliament (see Jerusalem Center article May 22, 2018). The result came as a slap in the face to Iran and its proxies in Iraq who tried by every means and with the active help of Gen. Qasem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force, to block the al-Sadr victory. They made great efforts to deny leadership to al-Sadr’s party by establishing a bigger parliamentary coalition which, according to the Iraqi electoral constitution, could have claimed the right to form the next government.

However, the results were published with a great delay (only on May 19) due to allegations of massive fraud within the Kurdish-populated provinces of Kirkuk and Dahuk. Also delaying the results were complaints by political leaders who either lost their seats in parliament or claimed that their party/list had lost seats to their rivals due to fraud.

Facing parliamentary discontent, the Parliament first asked the electoral committee for a recount in several areas and then voted afterwards for the establishment of a panel of judges who would recommend an alternative solution, such as a manual recount of 11 million votes. The Supreme Judicial Council, Iraq’s highest judicial authority, appointed the judges who will replace election commission officials in Iraq’s 18 provinces.

Can’t Win at the Ballot Box? Burn the Box

While this option was under consideration together with other constitutional solutions, a fire broke out on June 10, 2018, damaging a warehouse complex where the voting boxes with the ballots of the Baghdad area had been stored. “It is possible there were also some ballot boxes in the warehouse that caught fire,” said Iraqi Maj. Gen. Saad Maan, “but most of the important boxes are in the three warehouses where the fire has been controlled.” Interior Minister Qasim al-Araji told a local television channel that “not a single box was burned.”

State television said ballot boxes were moved to another location under heavy security, according to Reuters.1

According to other Iraqi officials, hundreds of thousands of fraudulent ballots were the target of the arson attempt.

Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr shows his ink-stained index finger and holds a national flag outside a polling station in Najaf on May 12, 2018.
Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr shows his ink-stained index finger and holds a national flag outside a polling station in Najaf on May 12, 2018.
(AFP Photo/Haidar Hamdani)

Facing the calamity, Iraq’s Prime Minister Dr. Haidar al-Abadi (who stays in office until a new government can be formed) instructed the security forces and intelligence agencies to protect the remnants of the voting boxes in all of Iraq’s regions and to investigate the cause and the perpetrators of the arson. A day earlier, Muqtada al-Sadr asked all militia forces in Iraq to surrender their weapons to the legal authorities in Iraq, fearing a flare up of passions that could trigger an armed confrontation between the different militias and between Shiites and Sunnis.

Who Profits from the Fire?

The destruction of ballot boxes may serve those who lost in the last elections and desperately demanded a recount and, as a last resort, a new elections round for parliament. Such a case is the current Speaker of Parliament, Salim al-Jabouri, who lost his seat in parliament and urged new elections. “The crime of burning ballot box storage warehouses in the Rusafa area is a deliberate act, a planned crime, aimed at hiding instances of fraud and manipulation of votes, lying to the Iraqi people and changing their will and choices,” Jabouri said in a statement carried by Al-Jazeera. “We call for the election to be repeated.”2

A recount and certainly a new election round would definitely profit the pro-Iranian parties, and they would probably do their utmost to reverse the results of the elections to secure a majority in parliament with the active help of Iran. These options are unacceptable to Muqtada al-Sadr and his allies, which brings the whole situation into a dead end and puts Iraq’s body-politic into a constitutional crisis that could undermine the democratic process initiated by the United States following the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.

In order to avoid chaos in the very short term, the different factions and parties will probably try to ask for a constitutional decision made by the Iraqi Supreme Court judges. This could be only a short-lived solution. Facing this unprecedented development, politicians will prepare their militias for a confrontation that could definitely mean the disintegration of the Iraqi body politic. The other alternative – unpleasant as it could be for the losers of the last electoral campaign – is to accept “as is” the results of the elections, form a transitional government and vote for a new round of parliamentary elections in the near future according to an agreed timetable between the different parties.

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