BAGHDAD, Iraq– Iraq’s political trajectory was thrown into doubt this week, as the board of the country’s election commission resigned, complaining of political and judicial interference in the electoral process. The mass resignation of the entire board comes a month before Iraqis are scheduled to head to the polls on April 30 to cast ballots in parliamentary elections.
The nine members of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) handed in their resignations March 25, saying a dispute between parliament and the judiciary over who should be allowed to compete in next month’s poll was hindering the panels ability to prepare for the vote, which will elect a new 325-member parliament.
“The commission is subject to intense pressures resulting from the conflict between the legislative and judiciary powers,” the commission said in a statement posted on its Website. “Since the IHEC does not want to be party to any conflict, and in order to escape this vicious cycle, the members of the board of commissioners decided to submit their resignations to the chairman en masse and are awaiting his approval if such pressure continues and no radical solution is reached to settle this issue in a bid to maintain the organization’s independence.”
The dispute centers on Clause 3 of Article 8 of the Electoral Law, which stipulates that candidates “not of good reputation” can be barred from competing in the ballot. Dozens of candidates have been disqualified by a judicial panel from participating in the election because they have outstanding arrest warrants. Disqualified candidates have no legal avenue to appeal the judicial panels decisions.
Parliament, meanwhile, maintains that only candidates with criminal convictions, not outstanding arrests warrants, can be barred from running in the election. Both the parliament and the judicial panel insist that the IHEC must implement their decisions, the IHEC’s statement on its Website said.
Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shia prime minister, has been accused of using the provision in the law to bar his opponents, often times from Iraq’s Sunni minority, from participating in the poll, which could give Maliki a third term. Former Finance Minister Rafa al-Issawi, one of the country’s leading Sunni politicians and a prominent critic of Maliki, was disqualified from taking part in next month’s election.
Sectarian violence surged last year and has showed no signs of abating in the lead up to the ballot, as radical Sunni Islamists continue to launch attacks at targets of Maliki’s Shia-dominated government. Meanwhile, the western city of Fallujah, located in Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, remains firmly under the control of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and anti-government Sunni tribes.
The Sunni extremist group and their tribal allies seized control of the city late last year after a raid by Iraq’s Shia-dominated security forces on a year old Sunni protest camp in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, on December 30. ISIS also took over Ramadi following the assault on the Sunni protest camp, although the city now appears to be partially under the control of government security forces and local Sunni tribes that have taken up arms against the extremist group. Government forces have yet to launch a campaign to retake Fallujah, which continues to be held by ISIS, other insurgent factions and their Sunni tribal allies.
Iraq’s security has deteriorated sharply over the last year, as the chaos and sectarian tensions emanating from the civil war in neighboring Syria, where rebels drawn largely from the country’s Sunni majority are fighting a regime dominated by Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam, have increasingly spilled over the border into Iraq, home to a Sunni minority that deeply distrusts its Shia government.
The sectarian tensions unleashed by Syria’s civil war have been made even more acute by the actions of Maliki’s government, which prosecuted the country’s highest ranking Sunni official, Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, in 2012 and raided a separate Sunni protest camp last April, killing more than 50 people in an attack that enraged Iraq’s Sunni community.
Hashemi’s prosecution and subsequent death sentence and the April assault on the Sunni protest camp helped to spark a new wave of deadly violence that swept over the country last year, Iraq’s deadliest since 2008. The violence, which claimed the lives of more 7,800 Iraqi’s last year, shows no signs of abating, as more than 400 people have been killed in violent attacks so far this month, according to a count by the AFP.