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Iraqi Kurdistan’s Regional Elections Test a Brittle Status Quo
Iraqi Kurdistan’s Regional Elections Test a Brittle Status Quo
Will Iraq’s Early Elections Solve Its Legitimacy Crisis?
Will Iraq’s Early Elections Solve Its Legitimacy Crisis?
A member of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces casts his vote at a polling station in Sulaimaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan, on 28 September 2018. Shwan Mohammed/AFP
Q&A / Middle East & North Africa

Iraqi Kurdistan’s Regional Elections Test a Brittle Status Quo

The fallout continues to settle after Iraqi Kurdistan’s fraught independence referendum one year ago. In this Q&A, our Iraq Senior Adviser Maria Fantappie surveys the political landscape ahead of the first regional legislative elections since the plebiscite.

What’s at stake in the 30 September elections?

Voters in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq will choose the 111 members of the Kurdistan National Assembly, in the fourth election since the body was founded in 1992 and the first since the Kurdish independence referendum on 25 September 2017. At stake, as usual, is the equilibrium between Iraqi Kurdistan’s dominant political parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This time, however, the fate of the PUK also hangs in the balance, as it faces a challenge from opposition rivals, the Gorran and New Generation movements.

At issue is also the relationship of the Kurdish region’s institutions – the Assembly, the judiciary and the executive, including the presidency – to the KDP and PUK. These institutions have long been dependent on the twin parties, and as long as that remains the case, elections not only shift the balance of power between the two but also transform these institutions’ role in the region’s political system.

The main parties’ duopoly is buffeted by the shock waves of the backlash to the 2017 referendum.

The main parties’ duopoly is also now buffeted by the shock waves of the backlash to the 2017 referendum, in which more than 90 per cent of participants voted for independence from Iraq. In response, the Iraqi government sent its troops into oil-rich Kirkuk and other disputed territories – lands claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government – which the Kurdish parties’ security forces had previously controlled. The territorial losses pitted the KDP and PUK against each other and divided each party internally.

Yet, all things considered, the KDP and PUK remain indispensable to one another, and the KDP in particular is still a favourite in the 30 September contest.

Who are the main parties competing, and how cohesive are they?

Old and new players are competing. Though it was mainly responsible for the referendum and the backlash it provoked, the KDP has weathered its internal disputes well. Masoud Barzani, who served as the region’s president from 2005 to 2017 and remains KDP leader, has used the proven method of managing divisions between senior party members within its family-based structure by assigning them to security and administrative posts. The KDP has no major competitors in its territorial strongholds, the Erbil and Dohuk provinces, and holds its own against the PUK in Suleimaniya province. In the elections, the KDP aspires to strengthen its grip on the regional government, reverse the political and territorial losses of 2017, and lead the Kurdish region out of the post-referendum crisis.

The PUK, on the other hand, has faced serious difficulties in containing its divisions. After its co-founder Jalal Talabani died in 2017, about a week after the referendum, the party has lacked a unifying figure. Instead, its leadership has fractured along lines of personal and family rivalries, creating multiple decision-making poles. The PUK’s splintering may aid the KDP in its aspiration to consolidate its hold on the region’s institutions. It may also benefit the PUK’s other rivals in Suleimaniya, the only province where the PUK still enjoys significant support. But Gorran, which split off from the PUK in 2009 in opposition to the KDP-PUK duopoly, faces an internal crisis of its own following the 2017 death of its founding leader, Nowshirwan Mustafa. This leaves New Generation, a movement founded by Shaswar Abdulwahid, which has taken in Gorran defectors.

How has the political landscape changed since the referendum?

The KDP-PUK strategic partnership, a power-sharing deal between Barzani and Talabani, has framed the Kurdish region’s political system for more than a decade. Since the KDP and PUK each maintain their own security forces in their respective areas of control, this partnership is paramount to sustaining governance. But the two parties’ arrangement was already in crisis after the 2013 Assembly elections, due to the PUK’s poor showing, and it totally unravelled after the referendum and Talabani’s death, with each blaming the other for the severity of the backlash from Baghdad. The PUK’s decline and the KDP’s ambitions are challenging this arrangement, which kept the region in balance internally as well as with its neighbours, Turkey and Iran.

Gorran, which has been around for ten years, has yet to find its place in the new KDP-dominated landscape. It has been unable to replace the PUK as the KDP’s strategic partner in Suleimaniya. In 2014, it agreed to participate in government, but then quit in protest two years later, costing itself credibility as both an opposition force and a potential ruling party. This background explains the emergence of New Generation as an anti-establishment movement giving voice to popular disillusionment with the political leadership and the governing system as a whole; effectively, it has been able to pick up open support in Suleimaniya only.

Kurdistan’s institutions also have suffered amid the turmoil. The KDP’s dispute with Gorran over the extralegal extension of Barzani’s presidency paralysed the Assembly, which has been unable to convene since 2015. The regional government has been compelled to operate with six acting ministers since Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic Group withdrew their ministers from the cabinet, including those holding the Peshmerga (defence) and finance portfolios. And the region has been without a president since Barzani stepped down following the referendum debacle, although he remains the ultimate arbiter behind the scenes as KDP leader.

Voters are equally dissatisfied with both parties.

How strong is the opposition to the KDP and PUK?

Voters are equally dissatisfied with both parties. Yet the KDP faces less opposition in Erbil and Dohuk than the PUK does in Suleimaniya. The KDP’s cohesion has helped it maintain support through a mix of co-optation and control, which has shrunk the space for genuine political competition. Its control over resource flows, public finances and employment has made many voters dependent on it for their livelihood. Opposition to its rule manifests itself through non-participation rather than voting for another party.

The PUK has been unable to use a similar strategy in Suleimaniya because of its fragmentation: rival politicians share and compete for key economic and security portfolios. This fragmentation leaves margins within which opposition groups can thrive.

Yet it is unclear if opposition parties in Suleimaniya can do more than just voice discontent. Groups such as New Generation, like Gorran and the Coalition for Justice and Democracy before it, may actually turn out to be useful for the ruling establishment. With its inflammatory rhetoric and undefined ideas for reform, New Generation is channelling anger on the streets and creating the appearance of open democratic debate without posing a real challenge to the twin parties and the political system they have built. Independent journalists and intellectuals have reproached opposition parties for playing what they call a farcical game, one these parties are fated to lose because – the critics claim – elections are not free and fair and the KDP-PUK duopoly has an iron grip on the region’s institutions. Kurdish youth widely share this sentiment. Alienation from politics and distrust of elections encourages people to acquiesce in the status quo and merely seek their share of the top-down wealth distribution through party patronage.

Do people still have confidence in elections in the wake of fraud allegations during Iraq’s parliamentary polls in May?

Trust in elections is at its lowest point in Iraqi Kurdistan’s modern history. The region’s parliamentary system helped ensure a degree of respect for democratic institutions, mechanisms and practices. Since the fall of the Baathist regime, the region has held three parliamentary elections (in 2005, 2009 and 2013), two rounds of provincial and local elections (in 2005 and 2013), and a presidential election (in 2009). (It also held elections during the period 1991-2003, when it was independent all but in name, but virtually cut off from the outside world, including Baghdad. Iraq in those years was under comprehensive UN sanctions, and the Baathist regime imposed a second, internal embargo upon the three majority-Kurdish provinces.) Despite its shortcomings in passing legislation, the Assembly was an effective platform for multi-party debate and oversight over the executive. The region had a vibrant civil society that mobilised in 2011 – in tune with protesters throughout the Middle East and North Africa – to protest KDP-PUK control over public institutions, denounce top-level corruption and demand better governance.

The war against the Islamic State in 2014-2017 weakened Iraqi Kurdistan’s young democratic institutions. The failure of popular uprisings in the Middle East, the subsequent geopolitical turmoil and the outcome of the referendum led political leaders to distrust parliamentary democracy as an effective governing system and put security and stability above democratic processes. Popular trust in democratic mechanisms eroded in tandem.

But another factor was that democracy proved incapable of removing a discredited leadership, a perception compounded by allegations of widespread fraud in the Kurdish region and disputed territories during the Iraqi parliamentary elections in May 2018. The KDP and PUK unexpectedly won almost the same number of seats in the Council of Representatives in Baghdad as they had in 2014, despite their decreasing popularity and post-referendum political and military setbacks. In many Iraqi Kurds’ view, elections have become a formality, a way for the established elites to legitimise their rule rather than an avenue for political change.

Under what conditions could violence occur?

The formula for an explosion would be the total absence of avenues for meaningful political participation plus blatant electoral fraud and continued poor governance. Yet geopolitical threats posed by the growing U.S.-Iran competition in the aftermath of the war against the Islamic State, the ongoing budget crisis and the persistent political-military standoff with Baghdad after the referendum are deterring the Kurdish public from again taking to the streets, unhappy as many people are. The new normal, in the short to medium term, is to settle, however reluctantly, for the status quo.

Tishreen protester holds an Iraqi flag in Tayaran Square. Baghdad, 19 January 2020. PHOTOGRAPHER/Ali Dab Dab

Will Iraq’s Early Elections Solve Its Legitimacy Crisis?

Protests in 2019-2020 forced Iraq’s government to resign, parliament to adopt a new elections law and authorities to organise early elections, scheduled for 10 October. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Lahib Higel says ruling parties are vying for support amid apathy and low expectations.

What’s at stake in Iraq’s elections on 10 October? 

These elections are the first test of Iraq’s political institutions since countrywide protests paralysed the country in 2019-2020. Those protests forced the government elected in 2018 to step down and pass a new elections law, which brought the polls originally planned for 2022 forward by six months. The so-called Tishreen (October) protests were a serious warning that the ruling parties and political system face a growing legitimacy crisis. If the balloting unfolds in a free and fair manner, without major violence, it may restore a degree of confidence in electoral democracy. Ideally, the vote would produce a new government empowered to tackle the country’s enormous socio-economic challenges head on, but that outcome is unlikely.

Many Iraqis have a dim view of their country’s future, despite a period of relative calm since the military victory over ISIS in 2017. Corruption and weak governance are hindering the provision of even basic services like water or electricity. In the summer, no one dependent on the national grid can count on more than a few hours of electricity per day. When temperatures reach 50 degrees centigrade, only those who can afford a household generator can keep cool. Even those with generators have to monitor them carefully, as they are often not powerful enough to cool an entire whole house. In 2018, the water quality was so poor in Basra that more than 100,000 people had to be hospitalised. These conditions triggered unrest, which turned out to be the precursor of the 2019-2020 Tishreen protests. 

State violence used to crush these protests led to demands for an overhaul of the whole political order that has been in place since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Critically, protesters also expressed frustration with a key political change made after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime. This change was the introduction of a Lebanon-style spoils system (known locally as muhasasa, Arabic for “apportionment”), which divvies up government and key state bureaucracy positions among the leaders of the main ethnic and religious groups. Though unpopular with the protesters, the system persists.

How great is popular interest in the new elections? 

Despite the great demand for change, popular interest in the elections is low. On television, the campaign is a race to the bottom, with politicians insulting their opponents and accusing one another of corruption. Each insists that he is the only leader able to save the country. On the road to Baghdad from the northern city of Mosul, campaign posters bedeck the entry and exit checkpoints outside every town. But political advertising is unlikely to convince people to turn out in great numbers to cast their ballots. Heavy state repression of the Tishreen protests left both those who had taken to the streets and those who had not with a sense of fear and disillusionment. Many have lost faith that the system can change at all, and few believe that the elections will shake up the establishment in any meaningful way. The 2018 polls were marred by widespread fraud. In the eyes of many Iraqis, corruption and mismanagement are too deeply rooted in the country’s politics for a better outcome to be possible. 

Personal safety is also an issue. In Baghdad, I met with members of a recently established political party that has fielded candidates for the elections but raised serious concerns about possible danger to them due to the party’s affiliation with the Tishreen movement. Some candidates have received anonymous handwritten notes or phone messages threatening them with harm if they do not withdraw.

A perception that the system is unfair ... diminishes voter enthusiasm

A perception that the system is unfair also diminishes voter enthusiasm. Iraq has no law that forces transparency in the way political parties raise and spend money, and many small parties suspect that their bigger rivals abuse their access to and control over state funds in ministries and other state institutions. The Iraqi Communist Party and several new parties originating in the Tishreen protests have decided to boycott the elections to protest this perceived unfairness and lack of personal safety.

For these and other reasons, large segments of the electorate may stay home on election day, though turnout is likely to vary by region. The lowest levels of participation are expected in the southern governorates that witnessed protests in 2019-2020. The strongest participation is expected in Kurdish areas, where fewer parties compete over fairly static patronage networks. Sunni Arab areas will likely fall in between, as reconstruction following the war with ISIS still tops the agenda there and many people may be motivated to vote for the parties that they think are most likely to invest in their areas.

What is the likely outcome of the poll?

The parties that are likely to do best in each ethno-sectarian group are the established ones. Among Shiites, the popular cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his movement are likely either to come out on top or, even if they fall short of expectations, to run neck and neck with their main rival, the Fateh alliance. The latter mainly comprises parties affiliated with the pro-Iran paramilitary groups of the Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation). Together with the State of Law Coalition of former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, they were second largest parliamentary bloc in the 2018 elections. This time around, they may even be able to form the largest bloc, depending on post-election alliance building. Among Sunni Arabs, the main competition is between the Taqaddum Party of Parliamentary Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi and the Azm Party of politician-cum-businessman Khamis al-Khanjar. The former is likely to enter into an alliance with Sadr and other centrist Shiite politicians such as cleric Ammar al-Hakim and former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, while the latter is expected to support the Fateh alliance. Among the Kurds, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Masrour Barzani is expected to stay well ahead in the race.

If the new parliament proves to be as reluctant to advance a reform agenda as the current one, more protests seem inevitable in the coming years.

Similar to previous elections, it is already clear that no party or bloc will be able to secure an absolute majority of the 329 seats, so following the polls there will be yet another lengthy process of coalition building and government formation. In 2018, negotiations lasted eight months and resulted in a government that included all the above parties. Governing by broad coalition and the need to reach something close to consensus on major decisions caused administrative gridlock, often resulting in parliament not taking votes on legislation or hampering the government’s ability to take policy decisions. This impasse in turn helped trigger the Tishreen protests. If the new parliament proves to be as reluctant to advance a reform agenda as the current one, more protests seem inevitable in the coming years.

The election will also be a test of the new election law enacted after the Tishreen protests. This statute introduced a Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) to replace the old system based on party lists, which allowed political parties to fill seats representing their proportionate share of the vote with their preferred candidates, some of whom did not necessarily gain significant percentages of the popular vote. Iraq has also gone from having a single electoral district to having 83 districts. The candidates who garner the most votes in each district – each district elects between three to five legislators, depending on its size – will go to parliament in Baghdad. In principle, this new system might bring hope of greater accountability over time, because candidates will be closer to their constituencies and voters will be able to punish legislators who they believe have performed poorly. Yet SNTV can be quite unpredictable and hard to manage for political parties; it can also result in quite disproportionate results. Newly established parties may also face challenges, as they will likely struggle to field candidates who can vie for the voters of older parties in many small electoral districts.

Established parties have a big advantage in funds, access to media, organisational infrastructure and mobilising power. The new law is therefore not expected to have a big influence on the overall distribution of seats. As per the politically agreed-upon practice since 2005, the muhasasa system also means that a Shiite will have to be prime minister, a Kurd president and a Sunni Arab speaker of parliament, with similar distributions among parties taking place in the allocation of senior cabinet and administration posts.

What are the big issues that the new government will be facing with other governments in the region?

Iraq’s ambition to broker more stable relations among the powers around it was manifested by the conference it convened in Baghdad in August, which brought together neighbours and other regional countries for talks on greater cooperation. Many of them attended at the head-of-state level. But while the August conference was a positive step, any new government in Baghdad will have to keep treading a careful path between the far stronger states that surround it, which do not see eye to eye on much of anything.

From Iraq’s perspective, the most influential of these neighbours is Iran. Ever since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, every government in Baghdad has needed the blessing of both Tehran and Washington to succeed. In 2018, for example, Iran and the U.S. compromised on the composition of Prime Minister Adil Abd-al-Mahdi’s government and, two years later, on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s interim government as well. The muhasasa system works in Iran’s favour, as the prime minister’s post is the most powerful in the Iraqi system and a Shiite must fill it. Not all Iraqi Shiite politicians are amenable to Iranian influence, but Tehran’s clout has undoubtedly been growing steadily since 2003. The new, more conservative government in Iran may push for a prime minister in Baghdad who leans farther away from the U.S. and will accelerate negotiations aimed at a full withdrawal of U.S. troops – including trainers and advisers (discussed below) – which is a major Iranian objective.

To Iraq’s north is Turkey, which is increasingly worried about the growth inside Iraq of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group that has been fighting the Turkish army for nearly four decades. Ankara will be looking for a government it can do business with and in particular one that will not block Turkish forces from carrying out continuous attacks on PKK and affiliated camps along Iraq’s northern border. Most worrying to some in Baghdad, the range of Turkish airstrikes has been creeping southward, especially in the last year, prompting Shiite parties aligned with the Hashd al-Shaabi network of paramilitary groups to condemn the strikes as an infringement upon Iraqi sovereignty. The Hashd groups work closely with the PKK and pro-PKK parties, among other things to ensure that they will continue to have full access to the Syrian border, which the PKK partly controls.

[The Gulf Arab States] will almost certainly look for ways to make sure the new Baghdad government stays close to the U.S. and keeps building on the momentum toward greater regional harmony.

To Iraq’s south are the Gulf Arab states, which remain deeply concerned about the spread of Iranian influence in Iraq and the Middle East. They will almost certainly look for ways to make sure the new Baghdad government stays close to the U.S. and keeps building on the momentum toward greater regional harmony that was in evidence at the Baghdad conference in August.

How has U.S. influence fared in Iraq, especially after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan?

The U.S. was the dominant player in Iraq after 2003 but has been losing ground, especially to Iran, ever since withdrawing most of its troops in 2011. The anti-ISIS fight brought back some U.S. soldiers in 2014, incongruously working in tacit concert with pro-Iranian paramilitaries, but their continued presence became politically controversial after the jihadists’ territorial defeat three years later. The last round of strategic talks between Baghdad and Washington in July produced agreement that all U.S. combat forces will depart by the end of 2021, leaving only trainers and advisers.

The new government will face two thorny questions relating to what remains of the U.S. military presence. The first is whether the U.S.-led coalition’s adjusted mandate will enable government forces to contain ISIS or other Sunni Islamist militants, should they resurge. Despite its territorial defeat, ISIS remains active today, carrying out attacks on security forces in the central provinces of Kirkuk, Salah al-Din and Diyala. In just two ambushes in September, ISIS fighters killed thirteen members of the Iraqi security forces. The full U.S. withdrawal in 2011 was followed three years later by the takeover of one third of Iraq by ISIS, forcing Washington to send some U.S. troops back. This time, by contrast, trainers and advisers as well as air support will remain.

The second question is how the government will handle countervailing domestic pressures on the U.S. to withdraw all its remaining forces. This demand is strongest among the Hashd groups aligned with Iran, especially after the January 2020 U.S. drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s expeditionary Qods force, and Hashd leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. But it is resisted by others, especially the Kurdish parties. It remains to be seen whether the Iran-aligned groups will accept the government’s agreement with the U.S. to keep trainers and advisers in Iraq after withdrawing its combat troops. Some of these groups have been implicated in attacks on U.S. forces in 2021 and have also been on the receiving end of U.S. retaliatory strikes. Further violent incidents may thus occur involving paramilitary groups and Iraqi bases on which U.S. personnel are co-located. While the absence of agreement between the U.S. and Iran on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal suggests the likelihood of further attacks, restoration of the agreement will not automatically lead to the end of hostilities, as some Iraqi paramilitary groups’ very raison d’être is to resist the U.S. military presence and Iran may not exert full control over these groups.