The prospects and limitations of United Nations election observation in Iraq

Workers from Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) count votes at an analysis centre in Kerbala, south of Baghdad May 2, 2014. Iraq held a democratic vote to choose a leader with no foreign troops present for the first time on Wednesday, as Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki sought to hold power for a third term in a country again consumed by sectarian bloodshed. The electoral commission said 60 percent of all voters had so far cast a ballot, according to initial data - but returns were not yet in from some areas. Counting may take three weeks. The commission hopes to declare final results by the end of May. REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed (IRAQ - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

In October 2021, after nearly two years of intermittent protests that brought down the government of Prime Minister Adil Abd Al-Mahdi, Iraqis are posed to go to the polls for early elections. One of the main debates surrounding early elections is the degree of involvement of the United Nations. Many political elites have called for an observational role for the U.N., which is limited in scope and can have unintended consequences. Meanwhile, many of the protesters, who had boycotted elections in 2018 and who have concerns about integrity of Iraqi-run elections are calling for more extensive involvement through supervision.

Lurking underneath these demands is the expectation that U.N. involvement can ensure electoral integrity, help restore trust in democracy, and grant the elections legitimacy. However, the fact that both political elites and the masses who protested them have requested U.N. involvement raises the question: How effective are various U.N. electoral services at accomplishing these goals and what should be done?

Understanding election involvement in Iraq

First, let’s clarify the meaning and scope of U.N. election services. There are eight types of electoral assistance that the U.N. can provide to a member state, three of which are rare.

The more common forms of electoral assistance are technical assistance, observation, expert panels, operational support to international observers, and support in creating a conducive environment. Technical assistance is one of the most popular forms of U.N. electoral services and has been provided to over 100 member states, including Iraq.

Electoral supervision, organization, and certification are the rarer forms of U.N. electoral services. For context, the last U.N.-supervised elections were conducted in 1989 in Namibia. In 2001 and 2002, the U.N. organized and conducted elections in East Timor. The U.N. also verified elections in East Timor in 2007 and in the Ivory Coast in 2010. Although these services are rare, the Iraqi public has been demanding U.N. supervision and at times U.N. organization for its next elections.

On the other hand, the government of Iraq requested electoral observation from the U.N. on November 20, 2020. A U.N. observer mission collects information on each phase of the electoral process and subsequently uses that data to present a report on behalf of the secretary-general on the quality of the election. Observation requires both a formal request by the government, as well as a resolution from the U.N. General Assembly or the U.N. Security Council. Critically for Iraq, the U.N. discourages observation missions in countries that have U.N. technical assistance already. It is important to note that since 2004, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) has maintained an Office of Electoral Assistance, which provides strategic and technical advice to Iraqi institutions. In addition to this office, multiple international actors and organizations have observed various elections.

The government of Iraq’s request is in line with a growing international acceptance and interest in election services, worldwide, not necessarily provided by the U.N. The Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) has invited 54 embassies and 21 international organizations to send out electoral observers. Since the mid-1990s, over half of all elections in unconsolidated democracies have been observed by international organizations, including the U.N., the Carter Center, the European Union, and others.

On February 16, the secretary-general’s special representative in Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, stressed to the U.N. Security Council the importance of upcoming October elections and asked for a response with regards to Baghdad’s request for electoral observation by UNAMI. Hennis-Plasschaert cited interconnected crises in Iraq, including the economic crisis, the lingering ISIS threat, and social tensions, including the recent repression of public protests in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. In its seventh report on electoral preparations and processes, the special representative reiterated that no matter how the U.N. Security Council responded, “the elections will be Iraqi-led and Iraqi-owned at all times.”

Understanding the limits

If the U.N. accepts the request for observation, it would satisfy the request of the government of Iraq, but would it satisfy the aims of the Iraqi public? The answer lies in the inherent shortcomings of electoral observation, which although substantial, can be mediated through proactive policymaking.

First, election observation is just that. It has an inherently limited purpose to observe each part of the electoral process, collect and analyze information, and provide a statement on behalf of the secretary-general on the quality and conduct of the elections. It cannot intervene in the process or mitigate election-day cheating. The U.N. and other entities cannot fundamentally improve governance practices through election observation alone. Moreover, this limited scope can also threaten local trust and engagement in the electoral process if the public misunderstands the scope of involvement to be larger than it is. The technicalities and limitations of U.N. electoral services are difficult to convey to the electorate.

The Iraqi public’s demand for U.N. involvement stems from the assumption that the U.N. can ensure the integrity of the elections; many people are perhaps forgetting that the U.N. has been involved in electoral assistance in Iraq since 2004. The Iraqi public already has a crisis of faith with regards to its elections. If the U.N.’s involvement fails to coincide with elections that are perceived as free and fair — or if the U.N.’s statement following the elections is not in line with public perception — then faith in both the U.N. and in elections will be shaken. In order to mitigate this, IHEC and the U.N. would be well-advised to clearly outline the scope and limitations of the U.N.’s electoral role in Iraq.

Second, the most harmful unintended consequence of election-day observation is strategic manipulation. Although high-quality election observation can effectively deter election-day fraud such as ballot fraud, it can also induce more covert methods of cheating. Political entities intent on cheating might turn to rigging courts and administrative bodies, repressing the media, and other forms of pre-election manipulation. For this reason, observation organizations favor a combination of both long-term observation and a pre-election assessment mission, while political elites — for obvious reasons — favor only election-day observation. As Iraq’s elections approach, signs of strategic manipulation are starting to appear, including the decline in press freedom and in civil society, as well as the intimidation of activists. It is vital that the decision to employ observation missions should not be delayed so that they are able to capture the pre-electoral environment in their data collection.

Setting expectations

Both members of the political elite and the electorate in Iraq have requested some form of U.N. involvement in the upcoming elections. Although an observation role seems to be inherently limited and to be favored by the political elite for that reason, it can still be used to promote free and fair elections and to restore faith in the electoral process and in democratization. For that to happen, the observation mission should be established in a timely manner to ensure observation of pre-electoral practices. The U.N. decision regarding the observation mission should not be delayed any further.

As for the public demand for supervision, it is unlikely to be met and the reasons underlying this should be clearly articulated. The U.N. has developed extensive ties with IHEC and with Iraqi institutions, but one of the things revealed by the protest movement is that it has failed to communicate properly with the Iraqi street. This is to the U.N.’s detriment, because unmet expectations will only serve to damage its reputation. Whatever decision that the U.N. reaches and whatever constraints it faces, need to be communicated to the Iraqi public, otherwise the public will continue to view the U.N.’s involvement as a panacea to its governance issues.