Elections in Iraqi Kurdistan: Results and Implications
Elections in Iraqi Kurdistan: Results and Implications
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
After Iraq: How the U.S. Failed to Fully Learn the Lessons of a Disastrous Intervention
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 10 minutes

Elections in Iraqi Kurdistan: Results and Implications

In July, Iraq's Kurdistan region staged both presidential and parliamentary elections. The emergence of a significant opposition bloc portends a lively legislative term, and hopefully greater transparency and accountability on the part of the regional government. However, the continued tenure of the ruling parties suggests that very little will change with respect to the Kurdistan regional government's posture vis-à-vis Baghdad or its neighbours, especially Turkey.

Closely tied with the West and blessed with relative peace and significant autonomy from central rule since 1991, and even more so 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan has made attempts at establishing a liberal democracy. Led by two principal parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the regional government remains caught in a transformation from guerrilla fighters to administrators. Since the first legislative elections in 1992, the government has been quasi-authoritarian, allowing a measure of freedom of expression and only once (in 2005) using elections to refresh what so far has been little more than a rubber-stamp parliament. The latest elections, on July 25, were somewhat of a departure.

Long in the planning and postponed once, the elections saw the emergence for the first time of significant opposition to the KDP/PUK's duopoly. This came in the form of two groups. The first was a list calling itself Goran, or Change, which sprouted from disarray inside the PUK associated with a struggle over who should succeed Jalal Talabani. Talabani is the founder of PUK (and the Iraqi president) who is getting on in age. He has repeatedly been treated for health problems and his grip on the party apparatus appears to be weakening. Goran started out as a reform faction inside the PUK, then left out of frustration, and now ran on a reform platform in the hope of mobilising an electorate deeply upset with corrupt, unaccountable and ineffective government. It aimed particularly at snatching up votes of disaffected PUK cadres.

The second list, called Services and Reform, was composed of four parties. The two dominant ones were Islamist parties; the other two were - somewhat incongruously -small Suleimaniya-based secular socialist parties. The Islamist movement arose during the KDP-PUK's internecine strife in the mid-1990s but the ruling parties have managed to curb its spread ever since they reconciled. This coalition, popularly known as the "Four Parties" list, similarly ran on an anti-corruption, good-governance platform.

The KDP and PUK ran jointly on the Kurdistani list, promising continued stability and a fight against corruption (which it has acknowledged as a serious problem). Its leader was Barham Salih, deputy prime minister in Baghdad, who has since become the new prime minister in Erbil.

In addition to electing a new parliament, Kurds were also asked to vote for a regional president, for the first time in a direct election. Masoud Barzani, who has been president since 2005, was the KDP/PUK candidate. He faced five opponents, none of whom had prior experience in government or were known to have a popular constituency.

Finally, the "election" that was meant to take place but did not was a referendum on the constitution, which parliament passed in June. The government tried to schedule a concomitant vote, but a combination of logistical obstacles and external political pressure prevented this. The constitution was controversial because it includes a clause stating that Kirkuk and other disputed territories are part of the Kurdistan region. This greatly upset the Maliki government, as well as neighbours such as Turkey (President Abdullah Gül complained about it in a phone call to President Obama). Concerned about such a development, US Vice President Joseph Biden then persuaded Barzani to postpone the vote to prevent an escalation of tensions in relations between Baghdad and Erbil and along the so-called trigger line in the disputed territories. The decision was made easier by the fact that the Iraqi High Electoral Commission had already judged that organising a referendum at such short notice was technically unfeasible.

The elections took place in an environment that appeared largely free of fraud and violence, and could therefore generally be termed fair. Most importantly, the opposition parties, whose hopes rose initially as voters flocked to the polls and who then had to dampen their enthusiasm as the results started to roll in, accepted the final results, but not without having submitted a number of complaints. The most significant perhaps concerned the extension of voting by one hour at the end of the day. Goran claimed that there was no need for extra time as voting appeared complete. It also alleged that the ruling parties used the time to stuff ballot boxes in Erbil and Dohuk. The electoral commission dismissed the complaint. (Goran counter-charged that the commission is headed by a Barzani crony).

Turn-out was a respectable 78.5 %, just under 2 million voters. The results were as follows:

Name Percentage # of Seats
Kurdistani List  57.37 59
Goran (Change) 23.72 25
Services and Reform List 12.84 13
Islamic Movement in Kurdistan-Iraq 1.45 2
Freedom and Social Justice 0.80 1  
(Communist Party)  
With almost a quarter of the votes, Goran's performance, while stunning for a newcomer, should be put in perspective. Goran is primarily based in Suleimaniya, which administratively and linguistically is a world away from Erbil, the seat of government, which many in Suleimaniya view as KDP-dominated. The key question is: Did Goran supporters vote against the government/KDP or, to the extent that they are disgruntled PUK members, against the PUK? This is difficult to sort out in the absence of reliable exit polls. Predictably, Goran performed best in Suleimaniya; this indicates a protest vote against the PUK, which lost even in Koysinjaq, a humiliating defeat for Talabani, its native son. Goran did far less well in Erbil (and was almost invisible in Dohuk); this suggests it was unable to tap into popular discontent with the government outside Suleimaniya. If Goran bases its support merely on ex-PUK voters, its vitality as a Kurdistan-wide opposition moved should be doubted. Much will depend on how it will use its voice in the new parliament to expose the ruling parties' malpractices and compel them to be more accountable.

With 59 seats, the Kurdistani list won the right to form the government. Since additionally it could count on the fealty of nine of the eleven seats set aside for minorities, this gave it a comfortable majority. It promptly moved ahead to appoint the parliament's new leadership, ignoring opposition demands for a vote. Kamal Kirkuki of the KDP, previously the deputy speaker, was named the new speaker.

But tensions are rife in relations between the KDP and PUK. Having lost a share of its followers to Goran, the PUK's leverage vis-à-vis the KDP is much diminished and the strategic agreement that has undergirded their relationship for at least the last four years has started to fray. Why, the KDP asked, should it grant the PUK a 50-50 share of government if it failed to pull its weight in the elections? For a while, there was talk even of blocking the PUK from taking the promised prime minister position or of allowing the PUK's Barham Salih to take the post for two instead of four years, upon which he would have to surrender it to the KDP.

Indeed, the KDP could have shut out the PUK altogether. However, it would have done so at the risk of seeing some of the PUK's elected representatives ally themselves with Goran to create a more formidable opposition coalition. The wiser option, therefore, was to grant the PUK its share of senior posts but make the party beholden to the KDP to an unprecedented degree. As a result, Barham Salih is a weak prime minister whose party failed to win a single governorate. Moreover, the PUK has lost much of its autonomy as a political party with a distinct identity. With an ailing Talabani, this is going to be its most difficult challenge in the next couple of years.

As predicted, Masoud Barzani swept the presidential elections, but faced determined resistance in Suleimaniya, where most voters cast their ballots in favour of a relative unknown, Kamal Mirawdali, an independent intellectual who lives in London. Region-wide, Mirawdali won 25% of the vote, against Barzani's 70%, underscoring once again the deep gulf that separates Surani-speaking Suleimaniya from Kurmanji-speaking and Barzani-dominated Badinan. PUK cadres had been instructed to vote for Barzani, as had the Islamists, and so it looks as if Mirawdali's support derived largely from Goran followers, given the percentages.

Thus Goran leader Noswhirwan Mustafa emerged as a clear winner, even if not in absolute terms, and thus as a potential power broker. Talabani's erstwhile deputy and the PUK's prime ideologue (the author of several serious historical studies), faces a palette of challenges and opportunities. His first order of business was to demand reinstatement of Goran followers dismissed from government positions under PUK pressure for switching loyalties. In the new parliament, Goran will push for greater transparency (the government budget and key details of the almost 30 oil contracts it has signed with foreign companies remain secret) and seek to block a referendum on the constitution, which it feels invests far too much power in the presidency.

Trading on his success, Nowshirwan has begun to turn Goran from a protest movement into a political machine that can run in both yet-to-be-scheduled local elections and Iraq's parliamentary elections (for which it has registered as a separate list, No. 28). How he projects himself in Baghdad will be of particular significance. Depending on the election outcome, Goran may be courted as an alternative Kurdish partner in a Shiite-led governing coalition, especially one that seeks to transcend ethno-sectarian identities. However, it seems unlikely that Nowshirwan would willingly destroy the unified Kurdish front in Baghdad and be branded a traitor in the Kurdish street as a result.

Unlike Barzani, who is developing stronger ties with Turkey, Nowshirwan has argued for improved relations with the Baghdad government, but like Barzani he is a hardliner on Kirkuk, which remains a make-or-break issue between Baghdad and Erbil. Accordingly, Nowshirwan has said that in Baghdad he will insist not on a unified Kurdish list but on on a unified Kurdish stance on "Kurdish rights", a reference to Kirkuk.  Where he may depart from the KDP/PUK line is on another Talabani turn as head of state, and this could complicate the Kurdish quest to retain the presidency as their position to fill.

The election outcome also suggests that the Kurdistan regional government's ties with Ankara may improve further, but only if both sides continue to show signs of accommodation, ultimately aiming for a deal. The unprecedented visit by Turkey's foreign minister, Ahmet Davuto?lu, to Erbil on October 30 illustrates how far things have come in a mere two years. Although Turkey has had better relations with Talabani than with Barzani in the past, the weight has decisively shifted toward Barzani (Kurdistan's bottom line) now that the Turkish military establishment (its bottom line) appears to have decided that Turkey will need the Iraqi Kurds in its bid to contain Iranian influence in Iraq, and also as a reliable buffer against an unstable Arab Iraq in the wake of a US withdrawal.

In turn, with Barzani's KDP at the helm, and fearing a resurgent central state and a possible civil war in Baghdad in equal measure, the regional government is cozying up to Turkey for post-American solace. Turkey and Kurdistan have many common interests - energy, trade, investments, in addition to the geo-strategic issues mentioned - but they will have to come to terms over the PKK's presence in northern Iraq, as well as - always - Kirkuk.

Turkey must walk a fine line between building up Kurdistan as a buffer against an Iran-controlled Arab Iraq and discouraging any notions of Kurdish independence. In this Kirkuk, with its vast hydrocarbons resources, is the key. Its accession to the Kurdistan region would enhance the Kurdish quest for statehood by giving the enclave greater economic leverage. This has therefore been a Turkish red line. Yet Turkey seeks to benefit from the oil and gas that are present in both the Kurdistan region and the disputed territories, and for this it needs the Kurds. The regional government has been accommodating in this regard, eager as it is to open export routes that avoid its having to deal with Baghdad directly. But it is also pushing for direct control over Kirkuk. How this intricate game plays itself out will depend to a large extent on how much political capital the United States is willing to spend on brokering a deal between Baghdad and Erbil.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq is facilitating US-supported meetings by stakeholders to conceive and implement confidence-building measures in the disputed territories, but progress has been painfully slow. UNAMI has proposed, and Washington has started quietly supporting, a special status for Kirkuk, at least for an interim period; this is a solution that Turkey has embraced as well. By giving the ruling parties and president a fresh popular mandate, the July elections should help Kurdish leaders in making the sacrifices on Kirkuk that outside actors are pushing them to make, in exchange for the protection, revenue from oil and gas exports, trade, and access to the West they need and crave.

If things work out between Turkey and the KRG, we can expect a rapid increase in trade and investment, the opening of an extra border crossing, the construction of a strategic Kurdish oil pipeline directly to the border (where it would connect with the Kirkuk-Ceyhan line), as well as a gas pipeline. In exchange, the KRG will have to put serious pressure on the PKK short of trying to expel it from its mountain strongholds (an assignment unlikely to succeed) but sufficient to keep it from using northern Iraq as a launching pad for attacks inside Turkey. If and when this all comes to pass, the Kurds hope, Turkey might relax its stance on Kirkuk and reconsider its red line. For now, however, this remains a distant dream.

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