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The announcement on 20 October 2018 of the official results of the elections in Iraqi Kurdistan did not cause much excitement among the population. This was not merely because it took the country’s Independent High Election and Referendum Commission (IHERC) exactly three weeks to make the announcement; most people wondered what difference the elections would really make. Iraqi Kurdistan’s parliament has been malfunctioning for years, and the previous government failed to implement any policies. That situation is unlikely to change soon, regardless of the results. To top it off, the IHERC narrowly agreed on the final count: four of the nine members rejected the outcome, accusing the leading parties of fraud.
The elections were held on 30 September 2018. The news portal Rudaw, owned by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), covered the voting throughout the day on a live blog. In the evening, Rudaw reported low turnout of around 60 per cent. The website expected the final results to be announced within 72 hours. Why it took so much longer remains unclear, but it seems to have to do with the accusations of fraud.
These started pouring in soon after the polling stations closed. The two biggest parties, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), accused each other of fraud in the regions under their respective control. Three weeks later, three members of the IHERC affiliated with the KDP and two members affiliated with the PUK were the only ones to accept the official election results. The members of the IHERC are not supposed to belong to any party. However, the IHERC would not exist if only people with no party affiliations were eligible for membership.
The KDP and PUK have a long history of rivalry, only coming together at crucial moments to keep the balance of power between them in place. This has everything to do with their origins: the KDP was founded in 1946 and is dominated by the Barzani clan, while the PUK, founded in 1975, is dominated by the Talabani clan. They fought a civil war between 1994 and 1997 and still maintain their own Peshmerga forces. The outcome of the war was that the southern regions around Sulaymaniyah came under PUK control, while the northern region around Erbil, considered the capital of the Kurdish region, came under the control of the KDP.
When the region’s autonomy was officially enshrined in the Iraqi constitution in 2005, a new element was added to the power balance. The KDP held the presidency of the Kurdish region, while the PUK provided the presidential candidate for Iraq, a post constitutionally designated to a Kurd.
Tensions flared in the months after the general elections in Iraq in May 2018 and the subsequent forming of the Iraqi government. The KDP considered itself eligible to present an Iraqi presidential candidate because the Kurdish region has been without a president since President Masoud Barzani’s term ended in November 2017. The parties could not agree on a candidate. The PUK proposed Barham Salih, a former PUK member who had rejoined the party in order to run in the elections. He beat the KDP’s candidate in a landslide.
Salih, a 58-year-old, British-educated engineer, was elected on 2 October 2018, two days after the elections in Iraqi Kurdistan. By then, it was clear that the KDP had secured a comfortable victory in parliament: the party increased its seats in the 111-member house from 38 in the previous elections in 2013 to 45. Although the PUK also increased its seats, from 18 to 21, it became the second-largest party again, relegating the former runner-up, the Gorran Movement (‘Movement for Change’) to third place. The Gorran Movement, which gets its votes mainly from the Sulaymaniyah area, lost half of its seats and was left with only 12. The New Generation, formed in 2018 to contest the elections, secured eight seats.
To join or not to join?
Since the results were announced, only the New Generation has clearly stated that it will not join a broad-based government. Other parties, like the Gorran Movement, have given mixed signals, initially rejecting the results and alleging fraud, then refusing to join a government, only to consider joining later anyway. The biggest Islamic block, Komal (Kurdistan Islamic Group), which won seven seats, increasing its parliamentary presence by one seat, has not yet made up its mind about whether or not to join the government.
Joining the government seems mainly driven by how this decision will benefit the parties in future elections. Nobody is talking about policy. And why would they, when the parliament has not functioned since 2015?
On the one hand, it is good news that the biggest factions in Kurdish politics have set aside their differences once again. Even so, there are tremendous challenges ahead. The region has been struggling, especially since last year’s failed independence referendum. Baghdad called the referendum illegal and seized several areas that the Kurds had captured in 2014, when the Islamic State (IS) was advancing and the Iraqi army withdrew. Most notable is the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, in Iraqi hands again since 2017. Its loss is yet another blow to the Kurdish economy, which has suffered from low oil prices in recent years. In addition, close to 2 million refugees from Syria as well as internally displaced persons from other parts of Iraq take a heavy toll on the budget, which itself is in dispute with Baghdad. Neither has IS been defeated. Despite the Iraqi government declaring victory over the group in December 2017, sleeper cells continue to carry out attacks in Iraqi cities. Ongoing tensions between the KDP and the PUK would only complicate matters.
On the other hand, leaders of the most powerful Kurdish clans distributing power among themselves, regardless of the will of voters, has little to do with democracy. Indeed, the current situation serves them well, and acts as a disincentive to tackle the region’s more deeply rooted problems. Even when the region was relatively prosperous, roughly in the first decade of this century, the Barzanis and Talabanis were reluctant to address the enormous corruption, widespread clientelism, and political and economic dependence on manipulative neighbours (Turkey on the part of the KDP, Iran on the part of the PUK) who repress Kurds within their own borders.
If these elections have shown anything, it is that, ultimately, it does not matter how the Kurds vote, as long as their choice at the ballot box provides the ostensible leaders with hollow legitimacy.