A bitter row between Iraq's political blocs is threatening the future independence of the country's election commission and is casting doubt on whether provincial polls due next year will be held on time.
Parties have been locked in stalemate for months over the selection of board members for Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), with the dispute leaving many to doubt whether those chosen will be able to exercise any independence whatsoever with provincial elections looming.
"Definitely, they (board members) will not be independent," said Mahmud Othman, an independent Kurdish lawmaker. "It's a bad way to build institutions, but that's what is going on."
Hamed al-Mutlak, another MP, admitted that while politicians wanted IHEC to be independent, "unfortunately, this is what is happening now."
"It's not ideal," added the member of the mostly Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc.
The dispute stems from a months-long row between Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's bloc and opponents, all of whom are members of a unity government.
Maliki's rivals accuse him of brandishing an authoritarian streak and have pushed, unsuccessfully, to withdraw confidence from his government.
For his part, the premier says he is being restricted from enacting policies by an unwieldy coalition.
"This is no longer about an independent electoral commission," said a Western diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. "You cannot look at the IHEC issue in isolation... The consequences could be bigger."
"IHEC hasn't been picked yet, so we don't know how it will operate. But the spat right now suggests it will operate on a sectarian basis."
After months of screening and interviews, MPs and officials managed in May to whittle a field of 7,200 candidates down to 60 finalists for nine commissioner posts.
Since then, no agreement has been reached on who should fill the vacancies with disputes centring around how to ensure the commission reflects Iraq's sectarian, as well as political, composition.
The UN has been so concerned with the protracted dispute that it issued a statement on August 5 in which special envoy Martin Kobler warned further delays "would pose a serious threat to the democratic process in Iraq."
"We want to maintain the electoral date, that is March 2013," Kobler told AFP. "And for good elections, you need a strong IHEC. A strong IHEC needs time to organise elections."
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"We call it consensus, but really it's sharing," said Othman, alluding to various parties lobbying to choose particular IHEC board members. "If it will be not independent, that means the elections will not be credible."
Were the current nine-member framework to persist, the commissioners would likely break down as four Shiites, two Sunni Arabs, two Kurds and one Christian, according to diplomats and lawmakers.
Within those groupings, further fragmentation would occur along party lines -- on the Shiite side, for example, Maliki's State of Law alliance would choose at least one commissioner, the movement loyal to anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr would select one, and another Shiite bloc would choose another.
A similar distribution would be implemented if the IHEC board were expanded to 15, though with greater representation for smaller parties.
As a result, diplomats have voiced concern that commissioners will not be independent, and point to national elections due in 2014 as a key marking point for parties to count on their loyalty.
Further ammunition came through on Tuesday for those who argue IHEC has become politicised when the outgoing commission chief and two other board members were handed suspended prison sentences.
Faraj al-Haidari told AFP that he and two others received one-year suspended sentences, effectively barring them from public office for life.
"During this process, they (the finalists) are lobbying to get support," said one diplomat with experience in advising countries on polls. "If they were independent before, they will not be independent at the end of the process."
"There is nothing independent in Iraq ... so why do we think that the electoral administration is going to be an oasis, surrounded by partisan institutions?"
"It's like playing football, but because nobody scores, you change the rules to let people use their hands -- fine, but don't call it football. If you change (the IHEC board) from nine to 15 only because you need to include all the political parties, then don't call it an independent election commission."
The diplomat warned that IHEC would require at least six months to organise elections, putting planned provincial council polls due in March 2013 in doubt.
Complicating matters is the fact that MPs are considering an amendment to the law governing IHEC that would require its staff reflect the population distribution of Iraq's 18 provinces, meaning countless trained election workers would be fired.
This, the diplomat said, could extend the timeline to two years.
"If it slips a couple months, that's OK," said the Western diplomat who raised concerns IHEC could operate on a sectarian basis. "But if it slips into next summer? I don't know."
"If I was to put money on whether provincial council elections are going to be held on time, I would say probably not."