Iraqi Kurds appear more divided than ever ahead of elections

Many Kurdish voters are unhappy with the heavy-handed approach of the KRG’s security forces.
Sunday 06/05/2018
Vehicles drive under campaign posters ahead of Iraq’s parliamentary election in Erbil, on April 15. (Reuters)
Political cacophony. Vehicles drive under campaign posters ahead of Iraq’s parliamentary election in Erbil, on April 15. (Reuters)

LONDON - Kurdish politicians appear more divided ahead of this round of Iraq’s national elections than in previous polls, amid reported voter apathy in areas under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The KRG’s loss of disputed areas, notably Kirkuk, to the control of central government means the number of seats for Kurdish members of parliament in Baghdad will be reduced but the bigger challenge is not their number but disunity.

Despite their bitter rivalry, the region’s main two parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — had usually presented a united front in the Iraqi parliament. There is a separate house of representatives for the KRG, where Kurdish politicians are more open about their differences.

Beside the KDP and PUK, powerful political parties include the Gorran (Change) Movement and Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal). In addition, new parties came to existence: the New Generation Movement, led by businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid; and the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ), led by veteran politician Barham Salih.

Following a referendum last September on the independence of Iraq’s Kurdistan region, which was called by the KDP-led KRG but branded illegal by Baghdad, the rift between Kurdish politicians widened.

Kurdish parties were unhappy with what they said was the KDP’s hijacking of the referendum for political gains. They grudgingly backed the referendum, which secured a majority of votes, but later sided with the central government for fear of being under the mercy of what they saw as a corrupt and authoritarian KDP.

The KDP accused its rivals, most notably the PUK, of betraying the Kurdish cause by siding with Baghdad.

Loss of Kurdish seats 

A united Kurdish bloc in parliament seems unlikely, although three Kurdish parties — the CDJ, Gorran and Komal — formed a coalition called Nishtiman for the elections.

“Analysts believe Kurdish political parties could lose ten or more seats in the coming Iraqi election,” Agence France-Presse reported.

The trend of losing Kurdish seats in the Iraqi parliament is not new.

“The number of seats that Iraqi Kurdish politicians have managed to gain in parliament in Baghdad has been decreasing for the last few elections,” wrote Hayman Hassan for the website “In 2005, Iraqi Kurdish MPs had 77 out of 275 seats and in 2010 that number fell to 57. This was despite the fact the number of seats in parliament increased to 325. During the 2014 elections, the Kurds managed to get 62 seats but the proportions were not in their favour then either because, once again, the number of seats in parliament increased, this time to 328,” he added.

Unlike in previous elections, Kurdish candidates are running in lists headed by Arabs inside the KRG region. The most prominent Arab Shia lists competing for Kurdish voters are the Victory Alliance, headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and the National Wisdom Movement, headed by Ammar al-Hakim.

It remains unknown how many Kurds will vote for Arab-led lists in the KRG despite their lack of trust in the KDP or PUK.

Kurdish politicians appear to have failed to carry out previous campaign promises. Only 50% of eligible voters in the KRG region are expected to take part in the elections, Shams Network for Monitoring Elections said.

'The Kurds’ oppressors are themselves Kurdish'

Many Kurdish voters are unhappy with the heavy-handed approach of the KRG’s security forces. In March, anti-corruption protesters were beaten, detained and some reportedly threatened with rape. Such actions are not uncommon.

“Today, the Kurds’ oppressors are themselves Kurdish — the two ruling families, Barzani and Talabani. And so that new ‘Other Iraq’ [KRG] is more and more coming to resemble the old [Ba’athist] Iraq, a one-party totalitarian state ruled by terror,” Hoshang Waziri, a Kurdish researcher, wrote in the New York Review of Books.

Bamo Nouri, a research associate at the University of London, warned: “If the crisis isn’t immediately addressed, then a full-scale revolution could be on the cards.”

“With two failed ruling parties, violent repression of dissent, no democracy or justice, and a redundant constitution, it’s no wonder the Kurdish region’s residents are up in arms,” he wrote for the website the Conversation UK.

The crackdown, which drew condemnations by Amnesty International and raised concern in the United Nations, will likely affect support for the KDP and PUK.

“People will have second thoughts about voting for the government parties because of the undignified way [citizens] were treated during the protests,” Kurdish political scientist Shivan Fazil told Al Monitor website.

The fear is the KDP and PUK, the only Kurdish parties that have their own militias, will continue to hold on to power.

“Regardless of the number of seats we win, whether one or 100, we will continue to be the PUK… we have weapons and nobody can take them from us,” senior PUK member Mullah Bakhtiar reportedly said in January, causing an uproar.

Observers said the international community, which has armed the KRG’s peshmerga, has a responsibility to help.

“A good start would be a clear call by the international community to the KDP and PUK to abstain from using Kurdish internal security and peshmerga forces to influence the results of the upcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections,” said Feike Fliervoet in a report for the Netherlands Institute of International Relations.