BAGHDAD, (AP) – Iraq’s president on Sunday demanded a recount in this month’s historic parliamentary elections, intensifying the political conflict over the not-yet-completed tally and increasing the chances that the vote will be a long, chaotic test of the nascent democracy.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s coalition is narrowly trailing in the overall vote tally to one led by former prime minister Iyad Allawi, with 95 percent of the vote counted. President Jalal Talabani, whose own coalition is losing to Allawi’s secular alliance in a key province, invoked the power of his office in calling for a recount.
On his official Web site, Talabani demanded that the Independent High Electoral Commission manually recount the ballots to “preclude any doubt and misunderstanding” about the results. He said he was making the demand “as the president of the state, authorized to preserve the constitution and to ensure justice and absolute transparency.”
Al-Maliki on Saturday called on the election commission to quickly respond to requests from political blocs for a recount.
The commission has rejected such calls, and Iraqi law empowers neither Talabani nor al-Maliki to force the issue. The panel is an independent body appointed by parliament, and submits its results only to the country’s supreme court for ratification.
A recount or a protracted election dispute could complicate the seating of a new government. In Iraq’s fledgling democracy, such periods of political instability have often been accompanied by violence, as debates not settled at the negotiating table are taken to the streets.
The process of counting ballots cast in the March 7 election has been criticized by some Iraqi politicians — often those losing at the time — as being plagued with fraud, though international observers have said the vote and count has been fair. Election officials have been handing out results in piecemeal fashion, creating the appearance of a tallying process in disarray.
The head of the election commission, Faraj al-Haidari, urged the political parties to be patient Sunday and scoffed at the idea that a manual recount would be any more accurate than the computerized count nearing completion.
“If you do not believe in the most advanced counting technologies, then how you are going to believe in an employee using pen and paper?” al-Haidari asked.
Sunday marked the first time Talabani, a Kurd, has weighed in on the counting process. His party is part of the Kurdish Alliance, which is narrowly losing to Allawi’s Iraqiya alliance in the key Tamim province in the north. The province is home to the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Arabs and Kurds, and an Iraqiya win would be a blow to Kurdish claims on the city.
Allawi is a secular Shiite whose Iraqiya alliance has both Shiite and Sunni supporters. Iraqiya nudged ahead of al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition in the overall vote tally Saturday, and by Sunday it has a lead of 11,346 votes. An overall lead in the vote count, however, would not guarantee that Iraqiya would get the most parliamentary seats, because those are apportioned province by province.
The Kurds, known for their political unity, are believed to be key by many observers to forming a government, and Talabani’s demands could be an attempt to influence the negotiating that will follow the final vote tally. Talabani, who’s seeking a third term, could also be trying to maneuver to ensure his own political future.
Under Iraqi law, once the parliament is seated, it elects a new president, who asks the bloc in parliament with the most seats to form a government.
The election commission said it would release 100 percent of the results on Friday, nearly three weeks after the election. After that, the commission reviews any additional complaints and then the supreme court must ratify the results, a process that could take weeks.
Observers were skeptical about whether worries about voting fraud were fueling demands for a recount.
“When earlier results were coming out and he (al-Maliki) was in the lead, there wasn’t a peep coming out of him,” said Michael Hanna, an Iraq analyst with the Century Foundation in New York. “It all looks very political, obviously.”
In a statement, Iraqiya described the calls for a recount as interference in the election commission’s work. Days earlier, before it pulled ahead in the overall vote count, Iraqiya had made its own claims of election fraud.
The process to seat a government is expected to be a drawn-out, messy affair that could take months as political parties jockey for position.
Violence in Iraq is at some of the lowest levels seen since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. More than 30 people were killed in Election Day attacks, the violence has ebbed since the vote-counting began.
But it is during times of instability that Iraq’s political process can become especially dangerous. The roughly five months it took to seat a government after the last nationwide parliamentary elections in December 2005 was when the insurgency took root, unleashing sectarian fighting across the country.