Vote-Buying Claims Threaten Poll Credibility

Bribes ranging from mobile phones to household items allegedly offered in attempts to win support.

By Ali Kareem in Baghdad, Jarir Mohammed in Mosul and Ali al-Mutalibi in Najaf (ICR No. 326, 3-Mar-10)

Iraq’s elections commission has promised to punish political parties found guilty of vote-buying - reports of which may threaten the credibility of next week's national vote.

"We have received many complaints about vote-buying and bribes and we have filed them to the Baghdad office where they are in the investigating process,” Abdulrahman Khalifa, head of public relations for the Iraqi High Electoral Commission, IHEC, told IWPR.

“The complaints included giving fuel, guns and money in exchange for votes. IHEC has tough penalties for these violations.”

The IHEC does not have figures for the number of bribery allegations it has received, but a rash of claims has been reported by the media and NGOs across Iraq. The Baghdad-based Sun Network, Iraq’s largest election watchdog, recently released its third report on alleged violations taking place in cities as far apart as Erbil and Basra.

“We recorded some bribes with detailed evidence,” Sun spokesman Hogar Chato said. “Some candidates from [Erbil and Basra] visited homes and gave household items like blankets, refrigerators and heaters to the people in exchange for promises that they would vote for them.”

Allegations of vote-buying, along with other forms of electoral misconduct, are seen as a major threat to international acceptance of March 7 parliamentary poll. In recent days, senior United States figures - most notably General Ray Odierno, the top US commander in Iraq, have said they are prepared to keep American troops in Iraq past this year's scheduled withdrawal if the election fails to proceed smoothly.

“Bribes are [tempting in] a society like Iraq where many people still live below the poverty line and aren't aware of their rights. Through reports [of violations] we put pressure on IHEC, and if it doesn’t respond we will send the reports to other international organisations like UNAMI [United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq] and western embassies,” Chato said.

Residents of several provinces told IWPR that political parties had resorted to handing out bribes including food, mobile phones or even government posts to win votes.

"One of the parties running in the election offered my son 100 US dollars for his vote. The party asked those who accepted [the money] to take an oath on the Holy Quran that they would vote for them. After taking the oath, the money was handed over," said Abu Mohammad, 60, a retired civil servant in the northern city of Mosul.

"I was not surprised because it is an election war, and everyone is desperate to win. But I was disappointed because the candidates of [this party] had advocated change," he added.

Sabah Sami, spokesman of the Baghdad municipality, said he had personally witnessed vote-buying.

"I saw with my own eyes a female candidate distributing clothes to children in my neighbourhood just to urge their parents to vote on her behalf. It is a shame," he said.

In the southern city of Najaf, Haider al-Akkayshi, 32, said he had witnessed multiple parties offering mobile phones to locals in exchange for promises of votes.

"Competing blocs are becoming creative in devising new methods for bribery," Najaf-based election monitor Saed Malallah said.

Not that corrupt candidates can be sure that their bribes will secure them votes.

"My friends and I take advantage of all the gifts, but in the end we will vote for who we want,” Mahmoud, an unemployed 28-year-old in Mosul, said.

Mutafa, an 18-year-old student in Baghdad, said, "If a candidate or a political party offers me a gift or a bribe, I will accept it at once. But I will not reward them with my vote.

“What can I expect from a candidate whose first step is a bribe? I wonder what he will do when he holds office.”

The elections commission, which was established by the former Coalition Provisional Authority in 2004, maintains that it is closely monitoring all complaints about the election and that violators will be punished.

Tariq Harb, a top Iraqi legal expert and a candidate with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s State of Law Alliance, said the IHEC is authorised to determine what it considers a bribe as well as the appropriate fine or punishment.

IHEC spokesman Qasim al-Abbodi said that any candidate or party found guilty of vote-buying is issued a warning. Should they persist, a hefty fine is handed down. If this fails to deter, then the candidate or party is banned.

"The commission is serious. We are investigating all details related to the electoral process, and we will punish severely. We will not keep silent regarding any violations," Abbodi said.

Ali Kareem, Jarir Mohammed and Ali al-Mutalibi are IWPR-trained journalists in Iraq. IWPR-trained journalist Shorish Khalid contributed to this report from Sulaimaniyah.