Dispute over candidate disqualifications could mar Iraqi vote's legitimacy

On March 7, 2010, millions of Iraqis voted to elect lawmakers who will rule the country for years as U.S. forces withdraw. The election was marred by dozens of attacks that killed nearly 40 people and underscored the security problems the incoming government will face.
By Ernesto Londoño and Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, March 10, 2010

BAGHDAD -- A controversy over the disqualification of candidates threatened Tuesday to undermine the legitimacy of Iraq's recent elections and inflame supporters of a coalition seeking to topple the alliance led by the prime minister.

U.S. officials, who had deemed the elections historic, were growing increasingly concerned by the dispute Tuesday evening, fearing it could lead to violence.

The candidates were barred on election eve by a commission -- run by onetime U.S. ally Ahmed Chalabi and other Shiite politicians -- that was empowered to screen government officials for loyalty to Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party. Most of the 55 candidates who were disqualified belong to the Iraqiya list of former prime minister Ayad Allawi, which appears to have done well in secular and Sunni communities.

If the votes for the newly barred candidates are annulled, it could give the Iraqiya coalition powerful ammunition to allege vote-rigging by rival politicians, including some in the Shiite-led camp of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

"It will be a very violent reaction," Allawi said in an interview Tuesday. "A lot of violence will take place, and God knows how this will end. I will tell you there is already an existing feeling that there was widespread rigging and widespread intimidation."

The spat has alarmed U.S. and United Nations officials, who fear it will make it harder for defeated candidates to accept the outcome. Officials said, however, that it was too soon to know whether the controversy would seriously disrupt the formation of a new government.

"I think we'll hear a number of complaints and see a number of white-knuckle moments in the weeks and months ahead," said a senior U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment on internal Iraqi affairs.

The Justice and Accountability Commission had earlier barred about 500 candidates from running; many diplomats and analysts described the vetting process as arbitrary, politicized and legally dubious.

Faraj al-Haidary, chairman of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, said Tuesday night that the votes for the 55 newly disqualified candidates would probably be tallied. Their blocs could then distribute the votes among standing candidates, he said.

Haidary said that under Iraqi law, the Justice and Accountability Commission could theoretically bar more candidates in the days ahead if it submits paperwork before the electoral board certifies them as lawmakers.

Allawi, who is a Shiite, said some of the nine members on the board think the votes should be annulled. He said he feared that politicians who have prominent roles in the government could hijack the process to weaken his slate, which has emerged as a top rival to Maliki's coalition.

The board's members have decided to resolve the issue after all the ballots are counted, according to an official familiar with the deliberations. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

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