Electoral uncertainty in Iraqi Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdistan is bracing itself for crucial elections next week that could reshape the political landscape, writes Salah Nasrawi
Voters across the autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq are going to the polls for parliamentary elections on Saturday amid mounting tensions, uncertainty and allegations of irregularities.
The elections are expected to determine the future of Kurdistan region President Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is facing one of the biggest challenges to its long-time grip on power, also threatening the party’s “strategic alliance” with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
The balloting also comes amid a controversy over Kurdistan’s draft constitution, which has been put on hold because of a dispute with the main opposition parties over political and democratic reforms to the region’s government.
The elections will be held in three Iraqi provinces that are under the control of the Kurdistan Region government to choose a new legislative council for the next four years.
Some 2,803,000 people are eligible to vote to send 111 representatives to a fourth Kurdish parliament. More than 1,000 candidates, representing 30 political lists, are standing in the elections.
Presidential elections that were scheduled to be held simultaneously with the parliamentary polls were delayed after Barzani accepted an extension of his term in office for two more years, passed by the outgoing parliament in July.
The Kurdish Region government, which is led by a coalition between Barzani’s KDP and Talabani’s PUK, is struggling with lingering power, resource-sharing and land disputes with the Baghdad government, as well as a constitutional crisis and a regional dynamic that includes an influx of Syrian refugees.
But at the top of the pre-election agenda is the stability of Iraqi Kurdistan.
As Iraqi Kurds gear up for the polls, accusations of manipulation by the two ruling parties and vote registration flaws have been rampant.
One of the major concerns of the opposition parties is the potential for voter fraud, with tens of thousands of dead people still registered to cast ballots.
The opposition has repeatedly demanded that Iraq’s Independent Electoral Commission removes the names of thousands of people whom it claims have died since the electoral roll was renewed in 2005.
According to the opposition, some 179,000 names of dead people are still registered as eligible voters.
The opposition also claims that there are thousands of duplicate or inaccurate names on the electoral roll, mostly in areas under Barzani’s party’s control. It fears that the KDP will use the irregularities to rig the vote in its own favour.
Like in the rest of Iraq, there has been no census in Kurdistan for years, and officials at the electoral commission say that it received the names of eligible voters from the Ministry of Health.
The opposition parties also accuse the two ruling parties of abusing state resources, such as the government-controlled media and security forces, to swing results and help their candidates win the election.
Allegations of a lack of impartiality by the electoral commissions in favour of these candidates have also been reported.
KDP and PUK officials, however, deny any accusations of electoral malpractices. 
Meanwhile, the election campaigns, kicked off on 29 August, have been marred by violence triggered by the tension and exchange of blame.
On Saturday, gunmen opened fire on a PUK campaign gathering in Suleimaniya, killing three people and wounding several others. A man and a woman were killed in two separate election rallies also in Suleimaniya last week.
The Kurdish media reported on Monday that at least 18 people had been believed killed during the election campaign. The government blamed the violence on “anarchist and irresponsible elements.”
At least one candidate was arrested in Erbil while campaigning in the city centre, accused of disturbing public order.
Since the beginning of Iraqi Kurdistan’s parliamentary election campaigns, attacks on journalists have also increased.
The Metro Centre to Defend Journalists, an NGO, reported on Sunday that there had been 18 reported attacks on journalists by party supporters since the campaigning started.
The election campaigns feature familiar themes such as the monopoly of power by the two ruling parties, corruption, nepotism, human rights and press freedoms abuses, and the mismanagement of the region’s resources.     
But people are also raising concerns about the future of the self-ruled region, which remains vulnerable amid growing instability in Iraq and raging Middle East conflicts.
Given the Kurds’ traumatic history, much of Kurdistan’s stability and prosperity seems to now depend on how its nascent political system will be able to overcome the challenges of political diversity and draw a common map for its people to move forward.
The elections will be a crucial test of whether Iraqi Kurds will be able to move towards that goal of building a shared future in what has been touted as an oasis of democracy and prosperity in violence-ripped Iraq.    
Since the Kurds established their autonomous region after an uprising against former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 1991, the region has been governed by the two ruling parties, which have shared power according to what they have termed a 50/ 50 partnership agreement.
Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution, which was endorsed in 2005, declared Kurdistan to be a federal region with an autonomous parliament and government.
Since then, the KDP and PUK have formed a common bloc in the parliament and the government, even though they have stayed separate as entities, each with its own security forces.
While the KDP’s political support remains strong in Erbil and Duhok, Kurdistan’s third major province Suleimaniya is the stronghold of the PUK. The two areas are divided by linguistic, political and social differences.
Both parties arose out of the years of resistance that the Kurds have put up against successive Iraqi governments since the modern Iraqi state came into being in the 1920s.
Though their agreement might have brought stability to the troubled region, many Kurds believe that the partnership formula has divided Kurdistan into two separate fiefdoms, splitting power and revenues among Talabani’s and Barzani’s families and cronies.
In the last election in 2009, the two parties won 75 seats altogether, giving them an absolute majority in the parliament.            There is no question about whether the KDP will get more seats than the other parties this time around. Instead, the question is whether it will maintain its partnership with the PUK, which has decided to run in the election separately. 
Various estimates suggest that the KDP will maintain a lead in its strongholds of Erbil and Dohuk and will probably receive 30 seats.
The PUK, meanwhile, is expected to lose some of its 29 seats in the outgoing parliament.
Its standing has been shrunk by the prolonged absence of its leader, Talabani, who is believed to be in a coma since he was admitted to a German hospital in December after suffering from a stroke.
Moreover, the two parties’ dominance of Kurdistan’s politics is now being strongly contested by a new reform movement that is bent on jettisoning the government in next week’s elections.
The new party, Goran, or Change, was formed shortly before the 2009 elections on an anti-corruption and pro-reform platform, and it surprised observers when it received a quarter of the votes.
Now the party expects to increase the number of its seats considerably. It hopes that it can form a coalition with the smaller opposition parties that are expected to win some 20 seats. 
Most of Goran’s members are former members of the PUK, who left in protest over Talabani’s mishandling of the party, the corruption of his family and closest aides, and his partnership with Barzani. 
On Saturday, Goran’s leader, Noswhirwan Mustafa, promised a big election victory which he said would enable the party to form a government.
“The era of scaring people and buying their votes has ended. These were practices used by despotic and failed governments,” he told an election rally.
“This election will be like a court of Justice that punishes the bad and rewards the good,” he said. “Our next move is to be in power.”
This might seem to be just rhetoric, but it has been enough to put the two ruling parties on notice. While the KDP seems ready to fight tooth and nail not to fall back, top PUK members now say that their party will rejoin the alliance with the KDP after the elections.
Yet, even if Goran fails to break the monopoly of power held by the KDP and the PUK, it has succeeded in giving Kurds an alternative to Barzani’s and Talabani’s autocracy that has dominated Kurdish politics for more than half a century.
Next week, the only thing that will matter will be whether the KDP and the PUK have a joint majority of the seats in Kurdistan’s new parliament.
If not, it will be a historic turning point for change to Kurdistan’s, and probably Iraq’s, political landscape.

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