Iraqi Kurds pessimistic ahead of elections

The region’s two main parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan are expected to bolster their numbers in the 111-seat House of Representatives.
Sunday 30/09/2018
A member of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces shows his ink-stained finger after voting in Sulaymaniyah, on September 28. (AFP)
High stakes. A member of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces shows his ink-stained finger after voting in Sulaymaniyah, on September 28. (AFP)

LONDON/TUNIS - Iraqi Kurds head to the polls September 30 to vote in parliamentary elections that could reshape the region’s political landscape a year after it failed to gain independence in a disputed referendum.

The region’s two main parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), are expected to bolster their numbers in the 111-seat House of Representatives, which they have dominated for more than two decades.

Opposition parties, dogged by internal fractures and delayed reforms, stand to lose influence, analysts said, which could hamper democratic reforms and efforts towards decentralisation.

“If the opposition parties fail yet again in these elections, there will likely be serious consequences,” wrote Kurdish political analyst Kamal Chomani for the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

“Aims for democratisation and social transformation would be delayed, the corrupt and kleptocratic rentier system of governance would remain in place, the KDP and the PUK would further consolidate power and strengthen their economic empires and militia forces and the dream of democratic change would yet again be deferred.”

The main opposition parties competing in the high-stakes elections are the Gorran (Change) movement, which has the second-most — 24 — seats in parliament; the New Generation Movement; and the region’s Islamist parties — the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG).

All promised to enact reforms to steer the country from corruption and towards economic recovery but many voters, disillusioned by unfulfilled dreams of independent statehood and economic crisis, show little enthusiasm. Politicians warned that turnout could be as low as 40%.

“These elections don’t interest me at all,” Abdullah Mohammed, a 69-year-old retiree, told Agence France-Presse (AFP). “They are spending crazy money on printing campaign posters but when people in need ask for help, they say there’s a crisis and there’s no money.”

“This is the first time that I’m not voting,” Ahmed Abdullah, 68, told Reuters. “The two parties in power steal and lie and that’s how they stay in power. I’ve stopped believing anything will change.”

On September 25, 2017, Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum that was opposed by Baghdad, neighbouring countries and Western allies.

Iraqi forces moved to retake control of the disputed, oil-rich territory of Kirkuk, a key source of income for Kurdistan and cut off the region’s air links to the rest of the world. The Iraqi government halted payments for Kurdish civil servants and cut the region’s budget, compounding a soaring debt crisis and fuelling resentment among the region’s population of 5.7 million.

Since campaigning for parliamentary elections began September 11, opposition parties have taken aim at the region’s leadership, vowing to crack down on “injustice” and “economic oppression.”

“What was necessary to oppose injustice and oppression and pillage, we did in the street, parliament and court, against an oppressive authority,” Ali Hama Salih, head of Gorran’s list, said during a rally in Sulaymaniah. “Gorran growing in strength means Kurdistan’s parliament growing stronger.”

KIG leader Ali Bapir said at a rally in Erbil: “Those who have become billionaires at the expense of the ordinary people, how can they sleep? Economic oppression must cease in this country. Classes and poverty need to cease to exist.”

The opposition cautioned against potential voter fraud by the KDP, which is accused by rivals of planning “election rigging” in areas strongly under its control.

Allegations of voter fraud led to clashes following elections for the national parliament in May, with fighting breaking out between gunmen loyal to Gorran and PUK militiamen.

KIG member Attah Mohammed told Reuters that, “if there’s widespread fraud again, all opposition parties will be diminished.”

Hoshyar Zebari, a senior KDP leader, said that a smooth election process was “critical to restoring the legitimacy of our institutions.”

Also at play during the vote will be the fragile alliance between the KDP and PUK, which have been at odds over who to nominate for the Iraqi presidency, which is designated to be held by a Kurd. In an unusual split, the two parties nominated separate candidates for the position that is usually decided by the PUK.

The PUK nominated former Kurdistan Prime Minister Barham Salih and the KDP put up former Kurdistan Regional Government Presidency Chief of Staff Fuad Hussein. Parliament must vote for the new president by October 2.

The KDP politburo issued a statement saying: “We have let the PUK know that the presidency rightfully belongs to Kurds and not any one party. That is why we can’t make sense of the PUK’s insistence on the Iraqi presidency.”

“The agreement we made with the PUK in 2005 is no longer valid, as President [Masoud] Barzani is no longer the Kurdistan regional president, and Jalal Talabani is no longer the Iraqi president,” the statement added.

Voters in Kurdistan appear less interested in the political wrangling than reversing their losses — both economic and political — from the referendum a year ago.

“The Kurds lost so much with that referendum,” shop owner Omar Karim, 62, told AFP. “This election will not give us back what we lost. The Kurdish leaders are not learning from their errors.”