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The political impasse threatening Iraqi Kurdistan's future

The political impasse threatening Iraqi Kurdistan's future
6 min read
15 April, 2024
Analysis: The Kurdistan Democratic Party's unprecedented boycott of long-overdue parliamentary elections leaves the semi-autonomous region in uncertain waters.

Voters in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region will cast ballots on 10 June for the regional parliament for the first time since 2018, but a major force will be missing from the ballot.

In an unprecedented move, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) declared on 18 March that it would boycott the election. In a statement, the party said that it was choosing to “refrain from justifying illegal and undemocratic elections”.

In particular, it objected to a decision by Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court eliminating seats in the Kurdistan Parliament reserved for ethnic and religious minorities. Critics allege that they were de facto controlled by the KDP.

In choosing to boycott, the KDP found itself largely alone. Most major Kurdish parties and the Federal Electoral Commission running the election are pressing ahead with preparations. The clash between the former’s intransigence and the latter’s insistence will carry the Kurdistan region into deeply uncertain waters.

“What worries me in general about the situation in the Kurdistan Region is the further deterioration of its status and the division and polarisation,” Sardar Aziz, a researcher and writer on Iraqi and Kurdish issues, told The New Arab.

“More cracks will appear in the system, giving space for others to intervene and creating further bad blood” between the Kurdish parties, he added.

The election was originally scheduled for 1 October 2022, at the conclusion of the four-year electoral cycle. However, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) proved unable to agree on how the election should be conducted.

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In particular, they disagreed about whether to reform the eleven seats reserved for ethnic and religious minorities, which the PUK argued gave its rival a built-in advantage.

Without an agreement, the legislature could not renew the mandate of the Kurdistan Region’s electoral commission and, therefore, was unable to hold elections on its own.

In March 2023, the KDP tried to force the issue anyway during a contentious session in the Kurdistan Parliament, which ended in a fistfight between legislators. The Federal Supreme Court intervened and rendered the point moot by ruling that the parliament had unconstitutionally extended its term and had been sitting illegally for months.

The court intervened further on 21 February. In response to a lawsuit filed by the PUK, it issued a bombshell ruling eliminating the reserved minority seats and breaking the region up into four separate constituencies. The ruling also confirmed that the Federal Electoral Commission will administer the upcoming polls.

In choosing to boycott elections, the KDP finds itself largely alone. Most major Kurdish parties and the Federal Electoral Commission are pressing ahead with preparations. [Getty]

Not only is this a blow to the Kurdistan Region’s ability to manage its own affairs, but it puts the region’s political parties in an unfamiliar position.

Since 1991, the KDP and the PUK have used their control of Kurdish political institutions, the security forces, and their extensive patronage networks to influence elections. Opposition groups claim that this included outright fraud. Federal administration of the election blunts that advantage.

The PUK appears comfortable with the arrangement because of its close ties with the ruling parties in Baghdad and has defended the actions of the court, but the KDP views the changes as a direct challenge to its position.

“The KDP feels for the first time disadvantaged [and] it has lost control over the direction of the election,” said Aziz. The party feels “that the whole situation is heading towards belittling and containing the party, so they have to make a move. Otherwise, the situation will continue.”

Nevertheless, the step to boycott is unprecedented. The KDP has won the most votes in every election in the Kurdistan Region since 2005 and controls the Erbil and Duhok governorates, which comprise about half of the region’s territory.

Senior party figures currently hold office as the Kurdistan region president and the KRG prime minister. It wields considerable power and would have likely topped the polls again owing to the lack of a substantive challenge in its home governorates.

The party believes, however, that the election’s outcome is predetermined. During a meeting with the head of the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), KDP leader Masoud Barzani said that he wanted an election that is “free from external interference and pre-design of the results”.

One party official told Voice of America that it expects to get between 27 and 35 seats, substantially fewer than its 2018 total of 45.

“Whether that's a fact or not, probably by now it is treated as a fact by a number of KDP officials,” Aziz said.

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The Kurdistan Regional Government's future

The KDP’s stance raises a number of questions about how the election can take place without it.

“We do not believe that the Kurdistan Parliament elections will be held if the KDP boycotts them. It is not possible to conduct this electoral process without the participation of the largest party,” Majid Shingali, a KDP MP in parliament in Baghdad, told an Iraqi media outlet.

Aziz argued that the KDP appeared to be digging in its heels on the issue and that it was not bluffing.

“Delaying or cancelling the election is no longer a pressure card, but it is a strategy itself because it is seen by the KDP as preventing something bad that’s happening to them,” he said. “We have to take into consideration that the cancellation or a long delay of the election is the KDP’s policy now.”

Nevertheless, the Federal Election Commission and the other parties are pressing ahead with preparations. Voter registration is complete and the parties’ position on the ballots was assigned by lottery on 8 April.

The KDP frames its stance as protecting Kurdish interests, but it could have the opposite effect. [Getty]

The Federal Electoral Commission’s mandate expires on 7 July, so any delay would require complicated wrangling in the parliament in Baghdad. Importantly, it is not clear whether another delay would satisfy the KDP's concerns about outside interference.

Further postponement would deeply frustrate the Kurdistan region’s international partners, who have consistently pushed for an election. They have urged the KDP to reverse its position and participate in the election. So far, it has refused.

If the KDP refuses to allow electoral activities in the governorates it controls, interferes with the campaigns of other parties, prevents coverage by journalists, or pressures voters into staying home, it risks further damaging the reputation of the Kurdistan Region.

Violations of freedom of expression and assembly are growing concerns. If the party refuses to acknowledge the results of the election or to allow the new Kurdistan Parliament to sit in Erbil, it will deepen already dangerous political divisions.

“Actually, the KRG is almost at the end of its functioning as a political entity,” Aziz said.

This state of affairs would leave the Kurdistan Region operating almost at the level of one of Iraq’s governorates, rather than as a semi-autonomous region. The KDP frames its stance as protecting Kurdish interests, but it could have the opposite effect.

There are legal mechanisms in place that would allow the PUK to turn directly to Baghdad to pay public servants in Sulaymaniyah, bypassing the KRG entirely. So far, the party has held back from taking this step, but a broken KRG could force its hand.

“Above all, this trivialises the institution of parliament,” Aziz said. “It is a really necessary and important institution for Kurdistan, but it is not valued.”

Winthrop Rodgers is a journalist and analyst based in Sulaymaniyah in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region. He focuses on politics, human rights, and political economy.

Follow him on Twitter and Instagram: @wrodgers2