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The Mathematical Parameters of the Baghdad Recount: Can the Result Really Change?

By Reidar Visser (www.historiae.org)

3 May 2010

Almost two months after Iraq’s 7 March elections, the provisional result has yet to be certified. There are two legal processes going on that prevent certification: The decision by the electoral judicial panel to de-Baathify around 60 candidates retroactively (even though they appeared on the ballot and received thousands of votes), and the manual recount of 2,5 million votes in Baghdad, which is due to start today.

As far as post-election de-Baathification is concerned, the push by the accountability and justice board to annul the votes of the excluded candidates altogether without transferring them to the affected lists comes across as particularly outrageous, but it is more doubtful whether the move will actually do much in the way of changing the arithmetic of coalition-forming in a decisive way. The 52 exclusions sought by both the accountability and justice board and the State of Law alliance of Nuri al-Maliki (SLA) will probably not lead to any changes in seats at all, whereas the separate batch of 7 or 8 exclusions pursued by the accountability and justice board on its own may create minor changes, but probably no more than one seat in net loss for Iraqiyya. Iraqiyya has considerable buffers of votes in many key governorates, including in Babel where even the loss of 11,600 votes for Iskandar Witwit apparently would only affect the electoral divider and thereby take one seat from SLA to the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), instead of reducing the INM share of seats:

Entity

Votes

Seats in initial allocation

Share of votes

Seats in second allocation

Remainder

Leftover seats

Total seats

INA

180,193

5.02 (4.91)

0.36

(0.35)

1.08

(1.4)

0.08

(0.4)

 

6 (5)

INM

93,102

(104,746)

2.59 (2.85)

0.18 (0.20)

0.54

(0.8)

0.54

(0.8)

1

3

SLA

231,939

6.45

(6.32)

0.46

(0.45)

1.38

(1.8)

0.39

(0.8)

(1)

7 (8)

Seat distribution scenario for Babel based on a loss of the votes for Iskandar Witwit. Old numbers in parentheses. Old IHEC divider, 36,642; new adjusted divider, 35,921

What are the possible consequences of the Baghdad recount? The mathematical parameters suggest they may be negligible. There are several reasons for this. One relates simply to the numbers of votes that need to change in the recount in order for them to make an impact in terms of seat distribution, particularly with respect to the critical initial round of seats allocation. Under the Iraqi proportional-representation system, the first round of seat awards consists simply of each entity having its total votes divided by the electoral divider (valid votes divided by available seats, determined by IHEC at 37,378 for Baghdad), rounded down to the integer (whole number). In the provisional result, 62 of 68 seats are awarded in this way, with 15 to the Iraqi National Alliance (INA), 22 to Iraqiyya (INM), 24 to State of Law (SLA) and 1 to Tawafuq (IIP).

Entity

Votes

Seats in initial allocation

Buffer of surplus votes

Votes required for one additional seat

Share of votes

Seats in second allocation

Remainder

Leftover seats

INA

561,659

15

989

36,381

0.24

1

0.44

1

INM

841,755

22

19,439

17,939

0.36

2

0.16

 

SLA

903,360

24

6,288

31,090

0.39

2

0.34

 

IIP

53413

1

16,035

21,343

0.02

 

0.12

 

 

The key point as far as the prospect of changes is concerned has to do with the buffer each party has before it loses a seat and the distance it needs to cover in terms of additional votes in order to reach the threshold for winning another seat in the first allocation. What the numbers so far show is that the only entities that are reasonably close to losing seats are INA (which could lose its fifteenth initial-allocation seat if less than 1,000 votes change in the manual recount), and, at a distant second, SLA (which would have to lose some 6,000 votes to lose its twenty-fourth initial-allocation seat). By way of contrast, Iraqiyya is looking reasonably comfortable – it is in fact the only entity that is equidistant from losing a seat and winning another one in the first allocation. With a buffer of some 19,400 seats it can withstand both a good deal of correction in the manual recount as well as de-Baathification attacks even of the most radical kind. (With the exception of Allawi and Hashimi, the seat-winning Baghdad candidates of Iraqiyya have relatively low personal scores and any exclusions therefore damage the total score for the list only modestly. It should also be observed that the buffer is in fact somewhat greater if votes are lost by way of de-Baathification, which also reduces the electoral divider and therefore mitigates the effect of the loss somewhat. Conversely, in the case of fraud, given the small size of the polling stations it is more likely that any irregularities consists of theft of votes from other entities rather than "ghost votes" and that therefore the total of votes (and hence the electoral divider) would remain unaffected.)

Moving on to the second allocation, dramatic changes are even less likely here. It is important to stress that the second allocation is entirely separate from first and starts from scratch: A good margin in the first will not give you any advantage in the second. Instead, the principle of proportionality is applied for dividing the remaining seats (6 in the provisional results) between the winning lists according to their share of the total votes for seat-winning entities. In the first round of the second allocation, each entity is given seats corresponding to the integer (whole number) of its share of the seat-winning votes multiplied by the number of available seats (again, currently 6), before any remaining seats are distributed in the second round according to the largest-remainder principle applied to the decimal value that was left after a whole number of seats had been allotted to them in the first round of the second allocation. The thresholds here will obviously depend on how many seats are left after the initial allocation: With the current situation, a 17% share wins you one seat and 33% wins you two. More crucial, perhaps, is the fact that because of the low number of seats available, their price is generally high, with each seat at the moment valued at a whopping 390,031 votes. As a consequence, major changes of the current 2-2-2 distribution between INA, INM and SLA are even less likely, and again it is INA, if any, that appears most vulnerable to changes.

Beyond these considerations relating to the numbers themselves, it has to be added that IHEC, the Iraqi elections commission, has put in place anti-fraud measures that look robust, at least on the surface. The key here is the size of the polling stations, which nowhere in Iraq cater for more than 420 voters, with an average probably substantially lower (an estimate of 11,000 stations has been reported for the 2,5 million voters in Baghdad which would give an average of around 230). The counting at the polling stations was open to political representatives of the parties and observers who ensured that records at the polling-station level exist and suspicion of irregularities would have been taken note of at this level. What this all means for a potential perpetrator of election fraud is that s/he would either face the problem of being discovered easily (say, stuffing the box of ballots at a 400-voter station would immediately have aroused suspicion) or would have to do a lot of work by working across a large number of polling station to gradually change the result. Just to give an example, the buffer that Iraqiyya has before it loses its twenty-second seat in the first allocation corresponds to either stuffing the boxes of 85 polling stations with Iraqiyya votes in areas with virtually no Iraqiyya voters (say, hardcore Sadr City areas), or, alternatively, adding 10% Iraqiyya votes to no less than 2,800 average Baghdad polling stations. A monumental task indeed for would-be fraudsters! Add to this also the fact of stability in the results over time: Already on 16 March at the 60% count level it was possible to predict the Baghdad distribution of seats with a single-seat margin of error.

State of Law tries to disqualify Najm Abdallah Ahmad and Ala Makki of Iraqiyya outside the de-Baathification process but is rejected by IHEC

In sum then, what is going on seems unlikely to affect the dynamics of the upcoming coalition negotiations beyond poisoning the atmosphere more generally and making compromise ever more unlikely. In particular, the tendencies of promising rapprochement between Maliki and Allawi may be a casualty after it emerged that State of Law had joined the de-Baathification headed by Ali al-Lami of INA in calling for the exclusion of 52 candidates. Not only that, evidence of other attempts by State of Law to invalidate candidacies on other grounds has also come to the fore, including a case which was thrown out by IHEC as late as on 25 April relating to Najm Abdallah Ahmad in Diyala and Ala Makki in Baghdad, and which has received less attention in the media. The sorry implication is that less promising alliances are likely to be attempted only to fail, thereby prolonging the labyrinthine process of government formation. For example, the primary reason that there is no all-Shiite alliance is probably that Maliki realises his prime ministerial dreams will come to an end once he enters that kind of alliance. As a consequence, if the results do not change a great deal, there may still be attempts by weakened SLA to have a go at separate alliance projects with some of the smaller parties (perhaps most likely Unity of Iraq, where Mashhadani/Abu Risha have been on talking terms with Maliki earlier) and then turn to the Kurds. The Kurds, faced with this kind of proposition, will feel like kingmakers and are likely to come up with tough demands, and the whole thing could well move back to square one again. In fact, even with an all-Shiite alliance this could happen again, since this time around the theoretical option of avoiding the Kurds altogether actually exists and might therefore prevent the kind of institutional push towards power-sharing that was felt in 2006. With the position of speaker now more important than that of president, the scenario of total parliamentary paralysis is also more likely than it was in 2006.

Meanwhile, in a possible rare and positive development, it has been suggested that the United States and UNAMI have finally agreed on a common red line as far as the constant attempts at adulterating the Iraqi democratic process are concerned, apparently along the lines of a demand that even if candidates are de-Baathified, no votes should be cancelled and taken away from lists. On the one hand, of course, one may wonder why it took them so long to get there: Back in February, they offered little in the way of effective resistance when the de-Baathification committee launched its main attack. On the other hand, though, there is some consistency in the new position (which seems to have emerged after a recent Biden-Melkert meeting in which the idea of "respect for all votes" was highlighted) in that it puts the rights of the Iraqi voter centre stage, i.e. regardless of what one thinks of the candidates, once they have been offered on a ballot to voters under an open-list system, cancelling their votes would constitute theft of votes of a kind incompatible with the basic idea of democracy. It will be interesting to see how the international community intends to stick to this principle – with certification now more likely in June, the scenario for government formation also gets pushed back, probably until the autumn and after the anticipated US drawdown in August. One option would be to leverage the issue in relation to the technical assistance from UNAMI that IHEC continues to need, i.e. demanding an end to the cancelling of votes in return for continued technical assistance in matters such as the Baghdad recount.

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