TODAY’S MESOP COMMENTARY : Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s Elections: towards Happiness or Disappointment / BY KAMAL CHOMANI

The opposition parties, which have always been asking for the implementation of their packages, will accept a government in which they have authority and share power, rather than one in which they merely participate…

Next Saturday (September 21) the Kurdistani people in Iraqi Kurdistan will go to the ballot box to elect 111 nominees to represent them in the next Parliament. Next Saturday will either become a turning point in Kurdistan’s history towards radical reforms in the political system or bring disappointment to the people.

Whereas the two ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by the Kurdistan Region’s Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, have been preoccupied with their history to attract the voters by focusing on the developments which the Kurdistan Region has enjoyed over the past four years, the opposition parties— the Gorran Movement led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, Islamic Union led by Muhammad Faraj and Islamic Group led by Ali Bapir— are focusing on a better future for all including: equality, the rule of law, the revelation of hundreds of corruption documents, transparency in oil income, combatting family rule, the various failures in the 22 year administration of the KDP and PUK, and the atrocities which the two ruling parties have committed against Kurdistan’s people.

The Kurdistan Region has been ruled by the two ruling parties, KDP and PUK, in the past 22 years of KRG’s history. After the 1992 elections during which a joint government was formed and the ruling parties each had 50% shares in all governmental institutions, the KDP and PUK government could not continue until the emergence of a civil war which divided Kurdistan into two zones, the KDP and PUK. In 1998 an agreement was brokered between them in Washington. When Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime was overthrown, Kurdistan entered a new era in which people’s situation improved and the Kurdish fear of returning to the Saddam’s dictatorial regime ended. In 2005 Kurdistan enjoyed elections for the second time. Again a joint government was formed between the two ruling parties with the participation of other minor parties.

Interestingly, people’s demands were growing for the democratization and institutionalization of government establishments, as well as their radical demands for reforms in all fields of society and the economic and political systems. Not surprisingly, the two ruling parties were becoming more and more authoritarian and corrupt with every passing day until a reform group separated from the PUK in 2009. Soon after their separation, they announced a movement called the Gorran Movement which took part in the July 25, 2009 elections and won 25 seats in parliament. Since then, the Kurdistan region has undergone different situations, especially during the beginning of the Arab Spring when Kurds, inspired by the Egyptian and Tunisian victories over the dictatorships, began their protests on February 17, 2011 in Slemani. The KDP Peshmerga forces opened fires on the protestors; as a result, KDP and PUK security and Peshmerga forces killed 10 innocent protesters and injured 500 others. Relations between the opposition parties and the ruling parties, in particular with the KDP, entered the worst period ever as KDP supporters started burning mostly the Gorran Movement’s headquarters in Erbil and the Islamic Union’s headquarters in Duhok, two provinces in the KDP zone afterwards.

A crucial legislative election

This time, the Legislative Elections are scheduled to happen in the midst of the people’s unrequited radical demands for reform. However, the two ruling parties have not changed their domestic, Iraqi, regional and international policies— which the people, free media and opposition have been long criticizing. Such is the case despite the fact that regional changes are crucial for the two ruling parties— particular the KDP— in KRG as Syria has made the PKK— the Kurdistan Workers’ Party— more influential in KRG, which is not in KDP’s favor. The Kurdish National Congress was about to be held in mid-August but was canceled due to conflicts. It was very much clear that the opposition parties and PUK had allied with the PKK rather than accepting the KDP’s demands regarding the formation of the congress.

Through the analysis of the previous three elections which the Kurdistan Region has enjoyed, it becomes so obvious that the two ruling parties, the KDP and PUK, have lost more and more votes after each election.

In the 1992 elections, the KDP and PUK won 89% of the votes (KDP 45.05%, PUK 43.6%) whereas all other minor parties could only acquire 11.35%. The 2005 elections were not much different: the KDP and PUK received 85.2% of the votes whereas the other parties won only 14%. But, very shocking to the two ruling parties, the 2009 elections changed the political shape of the Kurdistan region: the KDP and PUK won 57.37% of the votes whereas other parties received 43.63%. In Iraq’s 2010 general elections the KDP and PUK again couldn’t score better in the three KRG provinces, even though the Iraqi elections were not like KRG’s elections in terms of the demands of the people. Meanwhile, Iraq’s general elections were in the Open List System with which KDP and PUK voters voted for their candidates. Many were saying that PUK and KDP suppoters did not vote for the joint list of the two parties in 2009 since their members were not happy with the joint list. But again in Iraq’s 2010 elections, the KDP and PUK won only 54.60% of the votes in the three KRG provinces whereas the other parties won 44.88%. This means that in less than a year, the KDP and PUK lost 3% of their votes.

All these figures indicate one thing: in the September 21 Legislative Elections, the KDP and PUK will lose more votes as has been the case election after election in the KRG’s history.

Election campaigns in the Kurdistan Region thus far have shown how eager the people are for a radical change in the political system, let alone for a change in their lives. Interestingly, compared to previous election campaigns, people do not care about the KDP in Duhok and Erbil as they were not unobstructed to have free campaigns during previous elections. Campaigns have not stopped even though three people have been killed in the past three weeks and there have been some clashes between the loyalists of the KDP and Gorran, Gorran and PUK, KDP and PUK.

Oil changes the results?

The KRG has huge 45 billion barrel oil reserves which have attracted giant international oil companies to the region. Unsurprisingly, oil will shape the region’s political system and the aspirations of the people and political parties. Oil plays a vital role in elections. On the one hand, the ruling parties claim they make ‘oil a boon for people as they have done in the last ten years,’ but on the other, opposition parties claim that they change ‘the curse of oil’ to serve the peoples of Kurdistan. In election campaigns, the KDP shows oil pipelines as attracting voters and connecting the KRG’s developments with their oil policies. In response, the opposition parties— especially the Gorran movement— present documents which indicate that billions of dollars have disappeared. One of the main discourses of the opposition parties is that oil should serve the people rather than an elite within the two ruling parties— or more to the point, a few people within the Barzani and Talabani families.

There is no doubt that oil plays a vital role in election results as oil has created a KRG elite of corrupt neo-aristocrats. The people cannot tolerate corruption in the oil sector given that only a few people within the KRG know where the income from the sector goes. It was due to oil corruption that Hama Jaza, the Deputy of the Natural Resources Ministry, recently resigned. No members of parliament, whether from opposition lists or the ruling parties, know anything about oil income.

Forming the new cabinet a critical step

I recently wrote about the political scenarios for forming a new cabinet. [1] I don’t want to repeat myself here, but what I didn’t clearly address is that a coalition government which I believe in will be formed by the KDP, PUK, Gorran, Islamic Union and Islamic Group. More important than this, is to know how it will be and what will be Opposition parties demands.

There is way one of these parties can form the new cabinet unilaterally as it maybe even be difficult to form a cabinet with just two parties. While the KDP and PUK do not want a strong opposition in the parliament, opposition parties seek to partake in the government. For example, the Gorran Movement’s main discourse during these elections is that they must come to the power . They have two purposes: first, to attract the voters that Gorran is sure it needs to win the elections, and second—and foremost—to take part in forming the new cabinet.

Though it is difficult to predict how many votes each party will win, it may be easy to expect that the KDP will come in first place, Gorran second, PUK third, the Islamic Party fourth and the Islamic Group fifth. It means that Gorran cannot be ignored, and the three opposition parties may have a unanimous package for the government to pursue reforms. The KDP and PUK can either accept opposition parties’ reform packages, or form the weakest ever cabinet together.

The opposition parties, which have always been asking for the implementation of their packages, will accept a government in which they have authority and share power, rather than one in which they merely participate. And their main demands will be: the unification of the Peshmerga and security forces, unification of the two interior ministries and two finance ministries, transparency in oil contracts and income, amending the draft constitution and the political system from a presidential one to a parliamentary one (this is the PUK’s demand as well), tackling corruption, and other previously demanded reforms.

It is not clear to what extent these demands will be met by the KDP and PUK, but the KDP will face a difficult situation as opposition parties will not take part in any government if the political system is not fixed in the constitution as a parliamentary system. The KDP will be isolated in this regard.

Forming a new cabinet will be difficult as opposition parties desire to partake in a coalition government but with the guarantee of radical changes. Meanwhile, the KDP and PUK want the oppositions’ participation, but will not easily accept radical changes since any change tremendously affects their interests in a negative way.

It is crucial for opposition parties as well because, if their demands for change are not guaranteed, participation will mean suicide. It must be borne in mind that if opposition parties participate in an unsuccessful coalition government, then the future of democracy will be in danger as people will have no hope in any changes.

Next Saturday will either become a turning point in Kurdistan history towards radical reforms if the KDP and PUK lose more votes, as has been the case in previous elections, or a disappointment for the people if votes for the KDP and PUK surprisingly increase.

After all, the results next Saturday will determine the composition of the next cabinet, which will determine whether elections are a source of happiness or disappointment. People will say SOMETHING on the ballots next Saturday, and this time their votes MUST be heard otherwise they will think of OTHER WAYS for change!


Kamal Chomani has had a regular column for The Kurdistan Tribune since 2010 and previously served on the editorial staff of leading Kurdish political Lvin Magazine and as a former Reporters Without Borders correspondent for the Kurdistan Region.