Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has had an adversarial relationship with the country’s Election Commission since he lost to his main rival Iyad Allawi in the 2010 parliamentary election. Maliki demanded a recount, but that did not change the outcome. The premier was still able to outmaneuver Allawi and stay in power thanks to a favorable ruling by the Federal Court. Months later, Maliki was not done. At the beginning of 2011, the Federal Court again decided in his favor by saying that the Election Commission was under the cabinet’s control, instead of parliament. Members of the prime minister’s State of Law then began a relentless attack upon the commission for corruption, and pushed a no confidence vote to get rid of its leadership. That effort failed in July, marking an important setback for Maliki’s autocratic tendencies.
In January 2011, Iraq’s Federal Court ruled that all independent commissions in the country were under the control of the cabinet, and not parliament. The case was at the behest of Prime Minister Maliki who wanted to clarify the jurisdiction of the commissions. An advisor to the premier said that the decision was a good move because the Election Commission had no oversight before, and blamed any criticism of the court on politics. A legal aide to Maliki denied that the ruling was illegal, claiming that the constitution was unclear about what body the commissions came under. In fact, the constitution is quite unequivocal as Article 103 and 104 expressly state that all the independent commissions are under the parliament.
Why the Federal Court would make such a decision was widely debated within Iraq. It came after a number of other questionable rulings that favored Maliki. After the March 2010 parliamentary elections, the court said that the largest bloc that could form a new government meant one that was made either before or after the vote when previously it had been considered to mean one made before. That allowed the prime minister to make alliances after the vote to stay in office. The court followed that with a ruling that laws had to come from the cabinet, not parliament, which would have severely limited the power of the legislature. Some analysts believed that since the judges were from Saddam Hussein’s time, they were following their history of ruling in favor of the country’s leader.
The Election Commission was very worried about the court’s decision. It said that Maliki could interfere in elections, and undermine public confidence in them in the future. The head of the commission, Faraj al-Haydari stated that the United Nations was also worried. Right after the court ruling, the prime minister did intervene by ordering it to halt the appointment of 38 low-level election officials. The commission refused to follow that order. By doing so, the commission was defying not only the prime minister, but the court as well, which again angered Maliki.
The prime minister’s problems with the Election Commission started right after the March 2010 balloting. Maliki’s State of Law lost by just a few seats to Iyad Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement. That led the premier to demand a recount over fraud charges. The commission eventually agreed, but only in Baghdad, and it did not change the results. The prime minister was still able to stay in office, but was obviously upset that the commission had not made him the winner.
In May 2011, State of Law began questioning the integrity of the Election Commission. State of Law members accused it of financial and administrative corruption. That led to hearings with the commission’s leadership who were questioned about their salaries, special allowances, trips, and overtime pay. Maliki’s list accused them of having excessive security costs, and taking their family members on official visits. These charges became the basis of a no confidence vote in the leadership of the commission.
In the summer, Maliki stepped up his attacks upon the commission. First, he ordered that it cease all of its work in June. Second, State of Law distributed a report accusing the commission of corruption in July. Members of the prime minister’s list also began collecting signatures for a no confidence vote in the commission’s leadership. The commission responded by refusing to follow Maliki’s order, while its chairman, Faraj Haydari, accused State of Law of conducting a witch-hunt against the commission. If the no confidence vote went through, Haydari, and the rest of the commission’s leadership would have to step down. New commissioners could then be appointed by the cabinet, following the earlier court decision, giving Maliki the control he sought.
The problem for the premier, was that he found few supporters for his plan. The Kurdish Coalition did not support the no confidence vote claiming that it was just a plot by Maliki because he was upset with the 2010 election results. It also didn’t help that Haydari was from their list. The Change List, a breakaway Kurdish opposition group, was also opposed to the move, along with Allawi’s Iraqi National Movement and the National Alliance. Allawi’s list claimed that Maliki was trying to remain in power and stop any early elections from being called, while the National Alliance, which was in a coalition with State of Law, questioned the prime minister’s motives as well. The premier could expect no victories with so little support. It also showed that the majority of parliament believed that the attacks upon the Election Commission were just a raw power grab by Maliki.
The vote on the Election Commission finally happened on July 28, with the State of Law going down in defeat. Only 94 out of 245 parliamentarians in attendance voted in favor of the no confidence motion when a majority was needed. State of Law only has 89 seats out of 325 total, meaning that it got few supporters for its initiative. It appeared that the White Iraqi National Movement was the only party willing to stand with it. State of Law proved poor losers, as they marched out of parliament afterward, as some members said they would not follow the commission’s decision in the future. One State of Law parliamentarian went for hyperbole, claiming that the legislature could never talk about corruption again because they had stood by and allowed the corrupt commission leaders to stay in office. In contrast, the Iraqi National Movement praised the defeat as a positive sign for Iraq’s parliament, while the Sadrists, who are part of the National Alliance, said that State of Law’s accusations against the commission were false. Maliki had seemingly made a big deal out of nothing. He had his followers in parliament relentlessly attack the parliament, bring it up for a no confidence vote, but it was apparent from the beginning that his list was almost alone. The other parties could see that Maliki was just attempting to take over the commission so that he could control future elections. There was no reason for any other party to allow that as it would’ve threatened their own political futures.
Prime Minister Maliki was defeated in his attempt to unseat the Election Commission’s leadership, and take control of it. State of Law is still pushing the matter, accusing the parliament of lacking integrity and standing for corruption, but that will only earn Maliki more enemies, something that he can little afford as he is only in power due to the good favors of the Kurdish Coalition and National Alliance, both of which voted against the no confidence push. More importantly, the premier has shown increasingly autocratic tendencies in the past few years, and this was the latest example. He has steadily moved to increase his powers at the expense of others. This was one of his more open attempts, and was so bold that it was doomed to failure, so much so that one could question whether Maliki was ever serious about this effort, or whether he simply wanted to run the Commission through the wringer to punish it for not following his orders. Either way, his attempt was not a good sign for Iraq’s fledgling democracy. Institutions are still weak, and they need to be supported and nurtured rather than manipulated as the prime minister attempted to.
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