Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Iraq’s Election Was Free and Fair

Despite the complaints from some quarters, Iraq's young democracy is headed in the right direction.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Given the high stakes and intense competition of Iraq's parliamentary election, it is no surprise to see loud claims of victory from the contest's apparent winners and vague threats from the losers. As results show a slim victory for Ayad Allawi's Iraqiya coalition, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's voice has been the loudest. The prime minister has called for a recount, arguing that it is necessary to "protect political stability and to prevent a deterioration of the security situation" -- a statement that some have taken as a warning that violence could result if his demands are not met.

Overshadowed by horrific stories of death and sacrifice, the evolution of Iraq's political system has been a remarkable, if unheralded, achievement. Thousands of citizens' organizations have emerged -- many of them devoted to tackling social ills, cleaning up the environment, improving local communities, and protecting human rights. Unlike so many Arab countries with severe restrictions on speech and stifling Internet censorship, Iraq enjoys vigorous political debate. It is important that Iraq's progress is not reversed by those attempting to manipulate the results for their own purposes in the election's aftermath.

The March 7 election, despite sporadic problems, was genuinely competitive. Every available objective measure tells the same story: The will of the people was expressed in the election results. These results can and should form the basis for the country's governance.

Given the high stakes and intense competition of Iraq’s parliamentary election, it is no surprise to see loud claims of victory from the contest’s apparent winners and vague threats from the losers. As results show a slim victory for Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s voice has been the loudest. The prime minister has called for a recount, arguing that it is necessary to "protect political stability and to prevent a deterioration of the security situation" — a statement that some have taken as a warning that violence could result if his demands are not met.

Overshadowed by horrific stories of death and sacrifice, the evolution of Iraq’s political system has been a remarkable, if unheralded, achievement. Thousands of citizens’ organizations have emerged — many of them devoted to tackling social ills, cleaning up the environment, improving local communities, and protecting human rights. Unlike so many Arab countries with severe restrictions on speech and stifling Internet censorship, Iraq enjoys vigorous political debate. It is important that Iraq’s progress is not reversed by those attempting to manipulate the results for their own purposes in the election’s aftermath.

The March 7 election, despite sporadic problems, was genuinely competitive. Every available objective measure tells the same story: The will of the people was expressed in the election results. These results can and should form the basis for the country’s governance.

The Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) and U.N. officials who assisted the commission, though acknowledging some problems, have strongly defended the election process, denying there were systemic shortcomings and discounting the possibility of systematic fraud. There is no reason to doubt the IHEC or the United Nations, but we don’t have to take their word for it. Other major indicators, including the conclusions of independent election monitors and the results of public opinion polls, indicate that the will of the Iraqi people was accurately expressed in the balloting.

The best testament to the results’ integrity came from the tens of thousands of Iraqis who volunteered to monitor the polls. My organization, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), assisted one group of Iraqi monitors, the Sun Network for Monitoring Elections, in conducting a tried-and-true observation technique known as "sample-based observation" or parallel vote tabulation (PVT). NDI has assisted with PVTs in dozens of countries around the world.

This process relies on observers who monitor the counting process on election night at a representative sample of polling stations throughout the country and then send the results of each official local tally to a central database using text-messaging technology. Sun’s data from election night showed Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition and Maliki’s State of Law coalition in a statistical tie, mirroring the official results.

Sun observers noted that at 95 percent of polling stations sampled, political party poll-watchers signed documents stating that they concurred with the count total. Domestic monitoring estimates, while just one indicator, would seem to preclude the possibility of significant tampering because the results have long been known by thousands of political party and independent observers.

Pre-election public opinion polls provide another useful indicator of the results’ integrity. With a sample size of 4,000 nationwide, recent NDI tracking polls found support for Allawi’s Iraqiya coalition growing steadily as the election approached and support for Maliki’s State of Law coalition and the Iraqi National Alliance Shiite coalition holding at significant but lower levels. Despite Maliki’s protests, it was not surprising that Iraqiya fared relatively well.

There are still shortcomings in the system. Voter lists contain inaccuracies and must be improved before the next election. The exclusion of hundreds of candidates under de-Baathification procedures disrupted campaigning. Security problems made it difficult for politicians to reach out to voters. Each credible complaint should be reviewed and, when warranted, remedied.

There has also been much fretting about the predictable, if fraught, negotiations to form a governing coalition. For all the worrying about the election intensifying sectarian differences, Iraqis seem less focused on clan, tribe, and region than a few short years ago.

To be sure, Iraq remains a fragile and fragmented polity, but the political alliances that won the most seats — Allawi’s Iraqiya and Maliki’s State of Law — advertise themselves as moderate in orientation and aligned with neither the hard-line sectarian parties nor Iran. Both Allawi and Maliki fashion themselves as pragmatists ready to improve Iraqis’ everyday lives. A governing coalition compromise involving multiple parties and a technocratic cabinet is a more likely scenario than widespread violence sponsored by, or associated with, the main competitors.

Ethnic and sectarian divisions, ongoing violence, and, of course, the aftereffects of war and occupation mean that Iraq is far from a true democracy, but neither is it the fiasco some make it out to be.

In the wake of this election, there is a path to a stable government, chosen by the people. If such a government pursues prudent policies and rebuilds the country’s potentially formidable natural resource and agricultural infrastructure, Iraq could emerge as a powerful and constructive regional leader — maybe even a model in the Arab world. However, the first step is to convince Iraq’s leaders to accept the will of their own people, as expressed at the ballot box.

Leslie Campbell is senior associate and regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Democratic Institute.

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