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How political divisions could jeopardise Kurdistan elections

How political divisions could jeopardise Kurdistan's parliamentary elections
8 min read
27 May, 2022
Analysis: Political disputes over amending the region's decades-old election law, an expired elections commission and questions about minority representation are overshadowing the KRG's parliamentary elections scheduled for October 1st.
The Kurdistan Parliament, (Getty images)

Following nearly three months of political stalemate, the parliament of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region is set to resume sessions in early June to set the stage for the upcoming parliamentary elections in October.  

The last parliamentary election, held in September 2018, witnessed a low turnout of 57% and was marred with alleged large-scale voter fraud by the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the two main rival parties.

On February 24, Nechirvan Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region from the KDP, signed a decree in which he identified October 1 as the date for holding the region’s 6th round of parliamentary elections. Masrour Barzani, the Prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) –also from the KDP- allocated a special budget for carrying out the elections.

However, some key issues are impeding the chances of actually holding the elections on the designated date. Firstly, most political parties in the region, including the ruling PUK and the Change Movement, are asking for the amendment to the region’s election’s law.

The northern Iraqi enclave has been semi-autonomous from the federal government in Baghdad since 1991. The National Assembly of Kurdistan-Iraq in 1992 passed its first law on parliamentary elections, allowing the region to go to the ballot box every four years. Delaying elections, however, had become a phenomenon in the past years, especially while the two main Kurdish parties, the KDP and the PUK fought an intra-Kurdish war from 1994 until 1998.

Elections in limbo

According to the law, the Kurdistan region is distributed into one electoral district. Now, the two ruling parties, joined by three main opposition parties - the New Generation Movement, the Kurdistan Justice Party (Komal), and the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) - are asking the Kurdistan Parliament to amend the election law to divide the region into at least four electoral constituencies. The five parties are also asking for the establishment of a new election commission.

But Massoud Barzani’s KDP, which has a thin majority of 45 seats in the parliament, has shown an indirect cold shoulder to amend the law. Rival politicians claim that the KDP is opposing the move since its votes are expected to diminish largely if the party agrees to amend the law.

The Kurdistan parliament includes 111 seats; women have a minimum quota of 30 percent, while 11 seats are allocated for parties that represent minority groups. The KDP, which has dominated the support of the 11 lawmakers from the minorities, is a kingmaker in the parliament.

Kurdistan parliament speaker Rewaz Faiq leads a parliament session in Erbil, the capital of Iraq's northern autonomous Kurdish region, on May 25, 2021. [Getty]

The Kurdistan Region's Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission (IHREC) oversees all elections in the region every four years. It was established by the Kurdistan parliament in 2014, but its mandate ended in early 2020.

“I cannot say anything regarding the upcoming elections, since the legal time of our commission has ended,” Handren Mohammed, head of the IHREC, told The New Arab. “We have officially asked the Kurdistan parliament three times to renew our mandate or establish a new commission, but it has yet to respond to us. A new commission is entitled to say whether they can hold the election in time or not.”

Sherwan Zrar, IHREC’s spokesperson told Rudaw, a Kurdish media network, that the ultimatum for amending the election’s law was April 1st, since they need at least six months in order to make preparations for the expected election. However, Mohammed said that is not “necessarily true” as a new commissioner council of the IHREC would decide whether they can undergo the election on time.

The five Kurdish parties have presented several drafts to the presidency of the Kurdistan parliament to amend the election law. But the speaker of parliament Rewaz Fayaq, from PUK, had refrained from holding parliamentary sessions before all the political sides reach a consensus on the law.

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Amending the elections law

“The election laws as well as the electoral commission have political and legal dimensions that need consensus among the political sides in order to amend the law and then reactivate the commission,” Abas Fatah, deputy head of the Kurdistan parliament’s legal committee from PUK told The New Arab

He indicated that the question of whether the region will go to parliamentary elections by October is linked to the issue of a possible agreement among the contested political sides.

The KDP denied it wants to postpone the elections, and accused its rival, the PUK, of seeking the postponement via the parliament’s speaker, accusing the latter of trying to “paralyze” the body.

Zana Mala Khalid, head of the KDP bloc in the Kurdistan parliament, in April cautioned the speaker of carrying out their majority in the parliament, “if she does not announce the parliamentary meetings soon.”

Ziad Jabar, head of the PUK bloc in the Kurdistan parliament answered Zana in a press conference on April 3 and said that the current single-circle voting system has created an “imbalance in representing the cities and towns.” He accused the KDP of trying to suspend the elections, and manipulating the minorities’ quota.

The presidency of the Kurdistan Parliament, including the speaker, deputy speaker Hemn Hawrami from the KDP, and secretary of the parliament Muna Kahveci from the Turkmen Reform Party, convened on May 17 after 75 days of inactivity because of political disagreements among the Kurdish political parties. 

On May 25, the presidency held another meeting with the heads of the parliamentary blocs for further discussions on resuming parliamentary sessions. During the meeting it was decided that parliamentary sessions would resume on June 2, giving priority to amend the region's elections law, and activating the election's commission.

In a phone call with The New Arab on May 17, Mala Khalid said that they have previously announced their stance regarding the pending issues and that currently “there is nothing new.” He said they would announce their stance after next week’s meeting.

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 “We support holding the elections in its scheduled time. Since March 2021, our bloc in the parliament has proposed a draft law for amending the elections, but unfortunately the presidency of the parliament has not given it a chance for discussion,” Dler Abdulkhaliq, spokesperson of the Change Movement, said to The New Arab.

“According to the draft law, we proposed dividing the Kurdistan region into four electoral constituents. Amending the election’s law and activation of the IHREC should be done via political consensus. Necessary measures should be taken to reduce voter-frauds.”

This week, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq and head of UNAMI Ms. Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert met with heads and senior representatives of political parties in the Kurdistan Region at the United Nations compound in Erbil.

“With Kurdistan Region elections scheduled for 01 October 2022, the meeting provided a timely opportunity for the parties to exchange views on various issues, including the need to move away from divisive politics and the way forward to credible and transparent elections. Serving the interests of the peoples of the Kurdistan Region dominated today's discussions,” reads a statement by UNAMI.

What does the opposition say?

The New Generation Movement (NGM), an opposition party that has four MPs in the Kurdistan parliament, has also said they are holding a “pure election” in October.

“We are supporting a pure election in its due time. We deem that the current election law is a bad one, as the single electoral district is not followed anymore in any other country. We want the Kurdistan region to be divided among four electoral districts,” Himdad Shahin, spokesperson of the NGM spoke to The New Arab.

“The quota for the minorities should be distributed equally and geographically over all the provinces and not just from Erbil. Currently the KDP exploits the minorities’ quota for its political ends."

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He also clarified that both the KDP and the PUK “do not want elections to be held in time as they are afraid of losing votes”, and that is why they are emphasising on “pretexts” to delay the elections, “or else all the issues can be resolved in 24 hours in the parliament”.

Abu Bakr Haladni, lawmaker from the KIU, echoed similar grievances over the elections law and the IHREC.

“If there would be a real political will among the political sides we can reach a consensus within 48 hours and then pass it in the parliament. This would be the right choice since people have voted for this parliament for four years, but unfortunately this will is absent until now. Otherwise and surely the elections would not be held in October,” Haladni said to The New Arab.

Dana Taib Menmy is an investigative freelance journalist from the Iraqi Kurdistan region writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities. His work has appeared in Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English, Middle East Eye, The National, among many other outlets.

Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy