Elections in the Kurdistan Regional Government: A Model Democracy or Back to Factionalism?

Kurdishaspect.com - By Ofra Bengio* and Sherko Kirmanj**

Election fever has swept the Middle East this year. Already, the results of elections in Iran, Lebanon, Kuwait and Israel have had a profound impact on the countries’ domestic politics and hold important implications for the region as a whole. This trend will continue on July 25, when 2.5m eligible voters choose the president and parliament for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in northern Iraq, marking another step in the distancing of Iraqi Kurdistan from the central authorities in Baghdad.  

Having been the pioneers in experimenting in free elections in 1992 (thirteen years before Baghdad) and having presented itself as a model for democracy for Iraq as a whole, the KRG is facing new challenges in these elections: Strong pressure from its own Kurdish civil society to democratize, from its erstwhile partners in Baghdad who wish to bring the KRG back to the fold and from neighboring states which follow with great anxiety the developments in Iraqi Kurdistan.  
The run-up to the elections has been marked by a high degree of political excitement and competition. There are no less than 24 lists competing for 111 seats in the regional parliament. They are led by the two traditional forces, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headed by Jalal Talabani (who also currently holds the largely ceremonial post of president of Iraq); various Islamic groupings and some small ethnic and religious factions representing Turkomans and the Kaldo-Assyrian communities, who will have a total of 11 seats reserved for them.

A unique development in these elections is that the two big parties, the KDP and the PUK, are running as partners, tendering a single unified slate of candidates, the Kurdistani List. These two historical rivals periodically fought one another in armed combat during the mid-1980s and 1990s and residues of the rivalry have not dissipated altogether. How then can one understand their willingness to field a joint list?  To be sure, the motivation for a marriage of convenience runs deep, namely the fear that if they do not hang together they will be hanged together.

Both the KDP and the PUK are facing strong opposition from within their ranks, as well as from among Kurdish intellectuals and the society at large. Corruptions, nepotism, tribalism, mismanagement, monopolization of power and marginalization of the parliament have become standard complaints directed against the two ruling parties. Although the country’s infrastructure and well-being of most of the Kurds have improved significantly since the 2003 war, the feeling among many Kurds is that most of the benefits from the huge development projects have gone into the pockets of party leaders and other high-ranking officials. Such complaints are openly voiced, particularly by courageous newspapers such as Awena and Livin and, most importantly Hawlati, which maintains a drumbeat of criticism not only in Kurdish but in Arabic, Turkish and English as well.  

Whereas the KDP seems to be quite immune to pressure from within its ranks, thanks to its more traditional and autocratic tendencies, the PUK, with its more liberal and democratic outlook, appears to be on the verge of breaking apart. The history of the PUK, in fact, goes a long way to explain its present situation since from the day of its inception on June 1, 1975; it has been beset by personal and ideological factionalism.  
This factionalism has intensified due to the sweeping economic, social and political changes that have engulfed Kurdistan in recent years. Accordingly, two antagonistic blocs are confronting one another, one which revolves around Talabani, and the other around his former companion and Deputy Nawshirwan Mustafa.

Nawshirwan has been leading a reformist bloc which is running now in an independent list, Gorran (Change). Gorran’s platform calls for social justice, fighting corruption, the institutionalization of the separation of powers within the KRG, and limitations of the KDP’s and PUK’s powers over the government, parliament and judicial system. Nawshirwan's Gorran poses the strongest challenge to the joint Kurdistani list since its very emergence indicates the failure of the revolutionaries headed by these two blocs to run efficiently the KRG.
Challenged by Nawshirwan’s strong opposition, Talabani felt hard pressed to join hands with Barzani so as to minimize as much as possible his faction’s likely losses in the coming elections. At the same time, the threat felt by the KDP and the PUK from Islamist groups, as well as the pressure of civil society, made the two erstwhile rivals bury the hatchet. For their part, the reformist bloc and smaller opposition factions seem keen on turning the Kurdistan parliament into a body which will force the two leading parties to be more transparent and democratic.

The coming elections are worth watching for several reasons. One important phenomenon is that the main opposition within the KRG is moderate, secular and liberal. This stands in sharp contrast to other democratic experiments in the region, where the opposition is generally militantly nationalist and Islamist. Women will have at least 30% of the seats reserved to them (5% more than the proportion allocated to women in the Iraqi parliament). Not surprisingly, a list which is close to the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) was not allowed to run in the elections. The Islamist groupings have formed two blocs, thus increasing their chances to win seats in the new parliament. Most of the parties advocate the adoption of a federal system in Iraq, but, interestingly enough, almost none have raised the slogan of independence. This is not to say of course that they have forsaken this goal but that pragmatism dictates a more realist approach for this stage.

The elections to the presidency will be direct, by the people and not by the Parliament as had been the case in the past, raising fears that this will endow too much power to the president. Alongside Massoud Barzani, the current president of the KRG, there are four other candidates, the most important of whom is Hallo Ibrahim Ahmad, Talabani’s brother-in-law and Dr. Kamal Mirawdali, a London based Kurdish intellectual. In the meantime, a referendum to a new draft constitution which was hastily passed by the Kurdish parliament and which was to be voted on simultaneously with the other too, was deferred to another date because it was highly controversial.  

It seems likely that the joint Kurdistani List will win the elections. Still, Gorran and the Islamists may emerge as a strong opposition. But the big question mark is whether the democratization experience will strike deep roots in Kurdistan, or whether the KRG will become another testimony to failed democratic experiments in the region. Whatever the case, the results of the elections will have far reaching ramifications for the ongoing nation-building and state-building in the KRG. This in turn will effect relations with Baghdad which have been strained lately because of Nuri al-Maliki’s push for centralization policies on the one hand and the KRG’s growing autonomous moves on the other. Finally a stronger and more democratic KRG is likely to impact heavily on the Kurds in the neighboring states and the contours of minorities-state map in the Middle East.

*  Ofra Bengio is a professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University
** Sherko Kirmanj is a PhD candidate at University of South Australia


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July 18, 2009
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