Maddy-Weitzman July 19, 2009
Elections in Kurdistan:
A Model Democracy or a Return to Factionalism?
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 June 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 pioneered the experiment 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 strong pressure from
a number of directions: its own Kurdish civil society wants fuller
democratization, its erstwhile partners in Baghdad wish to bring the
KRG back to the fold, and neighboring states are following 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. However, as
usual, they are led by the two traditional parties, the Kurdistan
Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Mas'ud Barzani, and the Patriotic
Union of Kurdistan (PUK) headed by Jalal Talabani (who also currently
holds the largely ceremonial post of president of Iraq). Also worthy
of mention are various Islamic groupings and some smaller 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
and historic rivals, the KDP and the PUK, are running as partners,
tendering a single unified slate of candidates, the Kurdistani List.
During the mid-1980s and 1990s, the two periodically fought one
another in armed combat and residues of the rivalry have not
altogether dissipated . How then can one understand their willingness
to field a joint list?
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. Corruption, 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 largely 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 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 existing
leadership's failure to effectively govern 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. In
addition, the threat felt by the KDP and the PUK from Islamist
groups, as well as the pressure of civil society gave further impetus
to the two erstwhile rivals' instinct to 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 most
often militantly nationalist and Islamist. Women will have at least
30% of the seats reserved for 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 that they have
forsaken this goal, only that pragmatism dictates a more cautious
approach at this stage.
The KRG president will be chosen directly by the voters and not by
the Parliament as had been the case in the past, raising fears that
too much power will be bestowed upon the president. Alongside Mas'ud
Barzani, the current president, there are four other candidates, the
most important of whom is Hallo Ibrahim Ahmad, Talabani's
brother-in-law. In the meantime, a referendum on a new draft
constitution, which was hastily passed by the Kurdish parliament and
slated to be voted upon on July 25 as well, was deferred to another
date because of its highly controversial nature. Many Kurds,
especially intellectuals, rejected the draft constitution because it
granted the president powers which had been previously enjoyed by the
parliament, thus raising fears of the emergence of a new dictator.
For its part, mainly Arab elements in the government in Baghdad were
opposed to the proposed demarcation of the frontiers of the KRG,
which were to include the disputed areas of Kirkuk and the districts
of Mandali, Khanaqin, Sinjar and Sheikhan.
It seems likely that the joint Kurdistani List will win the
elections. Still, Gorran and the Islamists may emerge strengthened
as opposition forces. 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 processes in the KRG. This in turn
will affect relations with Baghdad, which have been become strained
because of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's efforts at centralization
and the KRG's own push for greater autonomy. Finally, a stronger and
more democratic KRG is likely to impact heavily on the Kurds in the
neighbouring states and upon the broader contours of minorities-state
relations in the Middle East.
- Ofra Bengio is a Dayan Center Senior Fellow and Professor of Middle
Eastern History at Tel Aviv University
- Sherko Kirmanj is a PhD candidate at University of South Australia
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