An Iraqi man walks outside a poll station in the northern multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk (AFP)
An Iraqi official has claimed that a "difference" is already emerging in the contested city of Kirkuk, as a recount begins of votes cast in May's controversial parliamentary elections.
A manual recount of votes began on Tuesday at the Kirkuk Sports Activities Centre, focusing on 522 ballot boxes from polling centres where allegations of fraud were made.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) won half of all seats in the city, according to the original electronic count, a result that was heavily contested by members of the city's Arab and Turkmen population.
“The manual recount of just 23 ballot boxes was done [on Tuesday] and there is a difference in the number of votes per the manual and electronic count,” a source told the Iraqi Kurdish news agency Rudaw.
“For example, according to the previous count, the PUK had obtained 213 votes in a box, but it fell to just 103 according to the manual recount,” he said.
The original 12 May poll involved a new electronic system for tallying votes cast, rather than counting voting slips manually – a process that has been criticised as being ripe for abuse.
Arshad Salihi, head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, also claimed in a Facebook post on Tuesday that "following the opening of the appealed ballot boxes in Kirkuk and digital matching between the barcode and electronic verification, large differences in results are shown."
The PUK, which has rejected any accusations of vote manipulation, was the main military and political force in Kirkuk after they captured the city in 2014 having repelled an onslaught by the Islamic State group.
In October 2017, however, they were driven out of the city – or fled – after an operation launched by Baghdad to recapture the city.
Kirkuk is claimed by Kurds as their cultural capital, but the city's demographic make up, which is fiercely disputed, has made such claims highly controversial among the Turkmen and Arab communities.
Ali Mahdi, a local leader of the Turkmen Front, told Middle East Eye in May that it was impossible to believe that in Iraq – where politics is still heavily split down sectarian lines – such a large number of non-Kurds had voted for the PUK.
"In an Arab area, in Hawija, there are no Kurds," he said, referring to a district in western Kirkuk province.
According to results released by the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), voters in the Arab and Turkmen-populated district voted mostly for the PUK.
Mahdi said his party had acquired information from a source on a cross-section of votes from Hawija.
"Out of 200 votes, they voted 118 to [PUK]. This is impossible; there is no one who is Kurdish in these areas."
'Plot to harm the nation'
Parliament ordered a full recount earlier in June after a government report concluded there were widespread violations.
That kicked off a fraught process as leaders of political blocs became embroiled in negotiations over the formation of the next government.
A panel of judges overseeing the recount later limited its scope, ruling that it would only cover suspect ballots flagged in formal complaints or official reports on fraud.
Overseas votes cast in Iran, Turkey, Britain, Lebanon, Jordan, the United States and Germany will also be recounted, the panel added.
Representatives from the United Nations and foreign embassies will attend the process, as will local and international observers.
One person was killed and 20 wounded in Kirkuk on Sunday when a suicide car bomb went off near a storage site housing ballot boxes.
Police sources said the warehouse was not damaged.
The driver detonated the vehicle before reaching the entrance of the warehouse after officers guarding the facility opened fire, they said.
In early June, a storage site holding half of Baghdad's ballot boxes went up in flames in an incident Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi described as a "plot to harm the nation and its democracy".
A new government cannot be formed in Iraq until the votes are recounted and ratified. According to AFP, only Iraqi state TV has been granted access to the recount, while other media have been denied entry.
Additional reporting by AFP