The forthcoming Iraqi parliamentary elections are as much a competition between rival Kurdish parties as they are an attempt for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to assure its representation in Baghdad. The expanded arena in which electoral politics are unwinding, unsettled scores between Kurdish factions, and declining Kurdish leverage in Iraq have heightened internal divisions while reinforcing the need for “a unified Kurdish voice.” Opposition politics in the Kurdish North also has renewed uncertainty over the power-sharing arrangement between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). If the politically fragmented PUK does not pull its weight in securing seats for the Kurdistani List, particularly in Kirkuk and the disputed territories, it will become further disempowered. Election outcomes will likely influence governance in the Kurdistan region and, to some extent, the dynamic between Erbil and Baghdad.
Like the 2005 electoral campaign, one of the key issues for the Kurds is how to allocate seats in the parliament and organize votes. Although the amended election law increased the total number of parliamentary seats from 275 to 325, the percentage of seats allocated to the Kurdistan Region, which is based on the food ration cards issued by the Iraqi Ministry of Trade, did not rise proportionately. A Kurdish delegation to Baghdad demanded 21 percent of total seats for the Kurdistan Region, or forty-eight seats; however, the Iraqi parliament accepted forty-three. This allocation not only reflects declining Kurdish influence in Iraq, but also the rifts that have become increasingly apparent between the Kurdish elites and their parties, and local populations.
A key thorn in the representation debate is the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which, after much Kurdish lobbying, has been included in the election process—it was excluded from the April 2009 provincial council elections because of a dispute over population figures. The problem of which population figures to rely on remains controversial in the parliamentary elections. Arab communities wanted to use the 2004 voter registry, the Turcomans the 1957 registry, and the Kurds the 2009 records. The Kurds also opposed ethnic quotas and quadrants, favoring instead keeping Kirkuk as a single electoral district. Arabs and Turcomans, however, wanted a four-district division that would give them some plurality in the city center. The election law eventually accepted Kirkuk as a single district, with voting based on present population figures. Even if the current situation appears to support a Kurdish plurality, the Kurds have no guarantee that the Kirkuk vote will ultimately work in their favor. The final votes will be subject to a special review to verify if there has been “an unusual increase in registered voters,” which may lead to additional uncertainties in election outcomes and renewed tensions between the KRG and the central government.
This allocation [of parliamentary seats] not only reflects declining Kurdish influence in Iraq, but also the rifts that have become increasingly apparent between the Kurdish elites and their parties, and local populations.
The real election imbroglio, however, is rooted in opposition politics in the Kurdish North. The Gorran (Change) movement, which has an important stake in the election with over 170 candidates in eight Iraqi provinces, continues to challenge the KDP-PUK duopoly. Gorran, a new movement that split from the PUK and won 25 seats in the Iraqi Kurdistan parliamentary elections last July, is concentrating most of its efforts on winning Kirkuk, a traditional PUK stronghold, and is working hard to capture disaffected Kurdish, Arab, and Turcoman votes. PUK leader and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani is campaigning against the popular local Gorran member Mam Rostam, underlining the fragility of the PUK power-base in Kirkuk. The KDP and the PUK have not been particularly tolerant of the Gorran challenge. Political intimidation against Gorran members continues, despite the edict against such activities issued by Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani. To date, no official investigations have been made against the violence, harassment, and death of Gorran members, which has further raised criticism of the Kurdistan Regional Government and its two main parties.
A potential further challenge to the KDP and PUK monopolization of power stems from changes in the voting system. Under the previous closed-list elections, the KDP and PUK could pre-determine how they would share seats in a district by negotiating the order of candidates on the joint list. If voters take advantage of the new open list system, seat-sharing between the two parties cannot be predetermined, because voters need not vote for straight party lists. Rather, they can cast votes for individual candidates, making it impossible for parties to negotiate ahead of time how seats will be apportioned between them. To capture the largest number of votes in each region, the two parties have placed their own representatives in traditional power centers; the KDP in Dohuk, the PUK in Suleimaniyah, and both in Erbil. While this arrangement may reaffirm the KDP support base, it has placed the PUK in the uncomfortable position of having to win votes in areas where it has lost substantial support to Gorran.
These issues have implications for internal governance and KRG relations with Baghdad. The elections are a litmus test for the viability of the strategic agreement and power-sharing among the various political, ethnic, and religious groups in the Kurdistan Region. Unless the PUK pulls its weight in Sulaimaniya and the disputed territories, it will become an even greater political burden for the KDP, which may find it less interesting or necessary to share power and revenues on a 50-50 basis. Gorran may be strategically placed to fill the PUK void; however, it still needs to consolidate its power base in the North. Unless Gorran transforms itself into an alternative party offering pragmatic solutions, rather than simply trying to capture voters dissatisfied with the PUK, the region could become a one-party quasi-state under the auspices of the KDP and the Barzani family.
The elections are a litmus test for the viability of the strategic agreement and power-sharing among the various political, ethnic, and religious groups in the Kurdistan Region.
Election outcomes also could affect the dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad. Gorran expects to win at least fifteen seats in the Iraqi parliament and to use its opposition role to influence politics in Baghdad. With Gorran’s “conditional” commitment to a unified Kurdish voice and no individual party likely to receive more than twenty seats, opportunities may arise for coalition building between Gorran and other Iraqi entities. According to the Movement for Change representative Hama Towfiq, “We have made it clear that we will not blindly support the KRG in Baghdad, particularly on essential Kurdish nationalist issues: the budget, peshmerga forces, and the hydrocarbons law.” Gorran has affirmed that it will support the Kurdistani List in the central government only if the KRG spends its budget in a transparent way, the Kurdish peshmerga forces are unified and not based on party militias, and conditions and information about the hydrocarbon law, including contracts with oil companies are made public.
Still, even if Gorran wins Kirkuk and key Kurdish areas, it may have insufficient leverage to bargain on Kurdish nationalist interests in Baghdad. It can challenge the Kurdistani List on essential issues such as corruption and transparency and engage in back-door bargaining between Kurdish and Iraqi parties. Yet Gorran has to reaffirm its commitment to the Kurdistan Region as a means of assuring popular support in the North. Any potential political deals are unlikely to lead to major shifts on key issues such as the budget, the hydrocarbon law, or Kirkuk and the disputed territories. Greater fragmentation could actually encourage more political bottlenecks in Baghdad and between the Kurdish parties. At minimum, the election results will further blur the lines between Kurdish nationalism, political expediency, and economic opportunism.
Denise Natali is the Academic Dean of Students and Research Centers Director at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimaniya.