Global Policy Forum

Monitors in Iraq Review Votes


By Dexter Filkins & Robert F. Worth

New York Times
October 18, 2005

Iraqi election officials said Monday that they were investigating "unusually high" vote totals in 12 Shiite and Kurdish provinces, where as many as 99 percent of the voters were reported to have cast ballots in favor of Iraq's new constitution. The investigation raised the possibility that the results of the referendum could be called into question. In a statement on Monday evening, the Independent Election Commission of Iraq said the results of the referendum on Saturday would have to be delayed "a few days" because the apparently high number of "yes" votes required election workers to "recheck, compare and audit" the results.

The statement made no mention of the possibility of fraud, but said results were being re-examined to comply with internationally accepted standards. Election officials say that under those standards, voting procedures should be re-examined anytime a candidate or a ballot question got more than 90 percent of the vote. Members of the commission declined to give any details. But one official with knowledge of the balloting said the 12 provinces where the "yes" votes exceeded 90 percent all had populations that were majority Shiite or Kurdish. Leaders from those communities strongly endorsed the proposed constitution. Some of the provinces, the official said, reported that 99 percent of the ballots counted were cast in favor of the constitution.

It is difficult to imagine why any Shiite or Kurdish political leaders would resort to fraud. Together the two groups make up about 80 percent of Iraq's population. None of the provinces cited for a closer look had Sunni majorities, the official said, although there were reports of similarly lopsided votes against the constitution in some Sunni areas. There are 3 Sunni majority provinces, of a total of 18. "When you find consistently very, very high numbers, then that is cause for further checking," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Anything over 90 percent either way usually leads to further investigation."

Aside from the announcement, the results of the referendum began to come into focus. About 10 million Iraqis cast ballots, or about 64 percent of registered voters, said Barham Salih, the minister for planning. Preliminary results, he said, show the constitution appears to have been approved by about 65 percent of those voting. But now those totals are being questioned.

The announcement on Monday seemed likely to feed doubts among many Iraqi voters, especially Sunnis, many of whom are deeply suspicious of the Shiite majority and of the Kurds. Such tensions could inhibit the delicate effort now under way to woo the Sunnis, many of whom have joined the insurgency, into the democratic process. According to the statement, the election commission intended to re-examine many aspects of the balloting, including "examining random samples from ballot boxes," the statement said. Such a process could drag out for days, raising the possibility that the election for a full-term Parliament, planned for Dec. 15, would have to be delayed.

Some Sunni leaders said the lopsided votes suggested fraud. Mishaan al-Jubouri, a National Assembly member and Sunni leader, said he favored a thorough investigation. The Shiite and Kurdish political parties in power "were filling out forms and stuffing them into boxes," he said in an interview. "They were also voting in the names of those who hadn't come to vote."

Mr. Jubouri said that monitors in several southern provinces, for example, reported modest voter turnout in their polling centers, but that after the polls closed, officials released overall turnout figures there that appeared to be extraordinarily high. They included results from the predominantly Shiite provinces of Najaf, Karbala and Wasit, he said. Some centers did not even have 20 or 30 percent voter turnout, he said. "This gives an impression that the process wasn't transparent," he added. The allegations could not be verified.

The reaction of some Sunni leaders to the investigation was more muted; they said they were largely resigned to the passage of the constitution and wanted to prepare for nationwide elections in December, when many Sunnis are expected to vote. In the weeks leading up to the referendum, some Shiite leaders expressed fears that the constitution could be defeated by a combination of a high Sunni turnout and a low Shiite one. To address those concerns, the National Assembly quietly passed a measure that changed the way votes were counted, lowering the threshold for passage of the constitution. Under intense international pressure, the assembly rescinded the measure shortly before the referendum.

The inquiry into the vote was largely a formality, set off by the overwhelming support for the constitution, said Mr. Salih, the planning minister. He said the commission had assured him that there was, as yet, no reason to suspect any fraud. "They are adamant that the evidence was overwhelming that the election was free and fair," Mr. Salih said of the commission members.

Mr. Salih said he had expected the constitution to pass by a wide margin in the Shiite and Kurdish areas, and to be overwhelmingly opposed in the Sunni areas. "There is polarization in the society," Mr. Salih said. "There is the political leadership for each community, and the population tends to follow them." Indeed, many Shiites interviewed at the polls on Saturday said they were voting for the charter largely because of the endorsement of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who commands widespread and often unquestioning allegiance among Iraq's Shiites.

The election commission has authority to overturn the results of the election if the members - six Iraqis and one non-Iraqi - decide the balloting was not conducted lawfully. To guard against the possibility of fraud and intimidation, the commission deployed 57,000 election observers, drawn from local aid groups, and 120 representatives of political parties.

Mahmood Othaman, a Kurdish member of the National Assembly, said the monitors were largely partisans themselves, leaving very few objective safeguards in place. In the Kurdish areas, the makeup of the teams effectively put the two main Kurdish parties in charge. "I expected these things," Dr. Othaman said. "I said it all along. If there is no census, and no outside observers, you can expect this.

"The people who were observing were the same as the candidates. The U.N. sits in Amman and says it's all good, it's free and fair, because they don't want to come here." Even as the vote counting went on, some Iraqis were already looking to the December elections. On Monday a group of leaders, led by the former prime minister, Ayad Allawi, announced the formation of a secular political coalition, intended to blunt the coalition of Shiite religious parties.

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