The Independent Gateway to Kurdish News and Analyses

Iraqi Kurdistan Votes

 

Kurdish Herald Feature - Vol. 1 Issue 4, August 2009

 

In a recent article for the Washington Institute for Near Eastern Policy, Michael Knights wrote that the US should start treating post-2009 Iraqi Kurdistan as a member of the top tier of Middle Eastern democracies. Indeed, on 25 July 2009, the parliamentary and presidential elections in Iraqi Kurdistan did represent a significant step forward in the region’s experiment with democracy.

 

About 79% of all eligible voters turned out to vote on Election Day in Iraqi Kurdistan’s three provinces: Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.

 

Faraj al-Haidari of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) stated in a post-election press conference that these recent elections were the cleanest elections in the history of Iraq.

 

Parliament, Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan - Photo Courtesy Vladimir van WIlgenburg © Kurdish Herald 2009

 

In the parliamentary elections, Iraqi Kurdistan’s two historically dominant political parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – ran on a united coalition slate: The Kurdistan List. A number of traditional opposition parties, consisting of Islamists and leftists, ran on their own united slate under the name of the Services and Reform List.

 

The most significant and publicized new development was the formation of a new political organization under the leadership of Newshirwan Mustafa, formerly a deputy of Iraqi President and PUK Secretary General, Jalal Talabani. Mr. Mustafa, accompanied by Mr. Mohammed Tawfiq and other former PUK members, formed a group that ran for parliament as the List for Change, which attempted to present itself as an alternative to the region’s dominant political establishment.

The KDP and PUK, who have dominated Iraqi Kurdistan’s political scene for decades and have held the overwhelming majority of seats in the region’s parliament since its founding, lost a substantial number of seats in the elections but still secured 59 of the 111 seats. Their losses occurred at the expense of the strong performance from the List for Change, which won 25 seats, mostly from the governorate of Sulaymaniyah.

 

Coming in third was the Services and Reform List, which collectively had 19 seats in the previous Parliament but earned only 13 seats this time around. Two seats were won by the once powerful Islamic Movement, and one seat was earned by another leftist coalition, running as the Freedom and Equality List.

 

Kurdistan List campaign poster with picture of Dr. Barham Salih, possible candidate for PM (left), and reelected President Massoud Barzani (right) - Photo Courtesy Jeff Allan © Kurdish Herald 2009

 

 

 

The Kurdistan List won just enough votes to be able to form the next government without a partner. However, if they choose to do so, the strengthened opposition can make it more difficult for legislation to pass as than in years past. This emboldened opposition bloc, led by the List for Change, will assume its role in Iraqi Kurdistan’s governance at a pivotal moment in the region’s history, as a number of serious outstanding issues need to be addressed including the postponed constitutional referendum and various discussions with the Iraqi central government. At the same time, Iraq’s national parliamentary elections, scheduled for January 2010, are just around the corner.

 

For the first time, the President of the Kurdistan Region was chosen via a direct election, as opposed to being selected by parliament. Five individuals ran for the post of the president, including the incumbent President Massoud Barzani.

 

While President Barzani was reelected, winning over 1.2 million votes, runner-up Dr. Kamal Mirawdeli – a previously London-based Kurdish writer and activist – had a surprisingly strong showing, winning over 460,000 votes. Dr. Mirawdeli, who campaigned primarily in his home province of Sulaymaniyah seems to have been endorsed, albeit not publicly, by the List for Change.

 

The future of the List for Change is perhaps the most interesting issue following these elections. It remains to be seen whether this group, which began as a splinter movement from the PUK, can evolve into a political movement in its own right, permanently altering the Iraqi Kurdish political landscape. For now what is certain is the existence of a credible opposition inside the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament.

 

Those voters drawn by the List for Change’s slogans of reform will indeed feel that their votes counted following the strong showing of this list; a result that surprised many observers of Iraqi Kurdistan. Certainly those who voted for the List for Change will be closely watching the list’s parliamentarians and other officials to see if they are able to deliver on their slogans of reform.


The ramifications of the List for Change’s strong performance are indeed significant and far-reaching. The Kurdish political earthquake had its epicenter in Sulaymaniyah, the former strong-hold of the PUK. Residents of this province seemingly rejected the existing political establishment, voting in large numbers for the List for Change rather than rallying to support the Kurdistan List, which was lead by Sulaymaniyah-native and long-time PUK representative, Dr. Barham Salih. Furthermore, hundreds of thousands of voters in Sulaymaniyah also opted not to vote for the PUK-endorsed incumbent in the presidential election, and instead gave their support to the comparably unknown candidate, Dr. Mirawdeli.

 

From a geographic point of view, the KDP proved that it has maintained a strong base of support in the Dohuk governorate. The Kurdistan List and President Barzani captured strong majorities of the votes cast in Duhok where a higher percentage of eligible voters turned out than in any other province.

 

Following the apparent decline in the fortunes of the PUK, it remains to be seen how ministries and other important official duties will be split between the two members of the Kurdistan List.

 

Many have predicted that the PUK’s recent weak electoral performance will give way to a departure from the 50/50 power sharing agreements that have kept the two major parties working together – with various degrees of uneasiness – as equals for the last few years. Indeed, one of the most significant effects of the strong showing of the List for Change is the new, weakened position of the PUK; the future of the PUK may indeed not be clear for at least a year.

 

List for Change supporters celebrate in the streets following the announcement of preliminary elections

results - Photo Courtesy Vladimir van WIlgenburg © Kurdish Herald 2009

Kurdistan List supporters celebrate in the streets following the announcement of preliminary elections

results - Photo Courtesy Vladimir van WIlgenburg © Kurdish Herald 2009

 

 

Looking forward, many issues will need to be addressed before the next Iraqi Kurdish election in 2013. It could easily take years for the results of the most recent elections to ripple through the political landscape and, as the rapid rise of the List for Change shows, many things can occur in a short period of time.

 

If Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution is implemented prior to the next day of election, then close to 1 million people will be added to the pool of eligible voters, most of whom would be from Kirkuk. It is anyone’s guess as to where these additional voters may fall on the Kurdish political map, though it is fair to assume that their views would be anything but monolithic.

 

Of course, the future is unclear. Even the most basic details of the new Iraqi Kurdistan government are, at the moment, in flux. However, it can be said with near certainty that most voters in the Kurdistan Region – a region that has now witnessed the rapid rise of a new opposition force – believe in the necessity of taking part in their democratic process and believe that their votes count. This is, by definition, a sign of a flourishing democracy.

 

 

 

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