Kurds in Iraq hold critical election amid competing visions of the autonomous region

Kurds voted Sunday in parliamentary elections for the first time since 2013, an effort to kick-start a stagnant political scene in northern Iraq that has been beset by competing visions for the future of the autonomous region.

The vote is the first since political infighting and a growing Islamic State threat shuttered the last parliament, setting off a fierce fight for control over the Kurdistan Regional Government between two dynastic political parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

It is also the first time Kurds go to the polls after holding a referendum last year on independence from Iraq. Despite 94 percent of voters choosing to secede, the referendum failed to win international support and provoked a firm response from Baghdad that saw Kurdish territory and economic independence greatly reduced.

With the referendum fallout in mind, along with deeply held frustrations with the two-party politics that have dominated the region since it won semi-autonomy in 1991, many Kurds expressed apathy over Sunday’s vote.

“I am not going to vote and waste my time for nothing,” said Farouq Omar, a 31-year-old from the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, capital of Irbil. “We already voted in the referendum saw the result: We lost what we had instead of winning anything.”

According to Kurdish election authorities, numbers released after polls closed showed a turnout of 58 percent across the major provinces that make up the KRG.

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Long a favorite with American diplomats, military generals and politicians for its outwardly pro-Western stance and appetite for modernity, the KRG has been isolated since holding the 2017 referendum. The United States warned against holding the vote and supported Baghdad’s military and economic measures that followed — including the retaking of oil-rich Kirkuk province by Iraqi troops and the banning of international travel.

Though relations with Baghdad have since improved, the disastrous fallout from the referendum accelerated splits between the KDP and PUK and within the parties themselves. Masoud Barzani, the president of the KRG and the leading KDP figure, stepped down as president but retained control of the KDP.

The rivalries that emerged from the KDP-driven referendum have only become more intense and have seeped into Iraq’s national politics. For the first time since Iraq began holding elections in 2005, Kurds have nominated competing politicians for the post of president of Iraq. While largely a ceremonial seat, Kurds have traditionally unified behind a PUK member for the job.

This year, as Iraq has struggled to form a government since elections in May, the KDP has insisted on putting forward its own candidate for the presidency of Iraq, which is reserved for a Kurd under Iraq’s informal power-sharing agreement. The parliamentary speaker role goes to a Sunni, while the head of government, the prime minister, is reserved for a Shiite.

The competition for the presidency reflects the growing rift between the Kurds as they attempt to regroup from the referendum amid public outcry over economic hardships and a tightening space for political expression.

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Since 2014, Kurdish leaders have responded to economic decline by rallying Kurds around the fight against the Islamic State while emphasizing the region’s role in hosting hundreds of thousands Iraqi people displaced from their cities by the militant group.

“So now the next regional government will have to focus on how to actually build a functioning government and functioning substate,” said Renad Mansour, an expert on Kurdish and Iraqi politics at Chatham House.

Sunday’s election and the battle for the presidency of Iraq has highlighted the competing visions for the KRG.

The PUK has argued for better relations with Baghdad as a means for improving the fortunes of the Kurdish region, while the KDP has insisted that an independent Kurdistan would strengthen the Kurdish government’s hand in revenue-sharing and security quarrels with the central government of Iraq.

The competition in Baghdad over the presidency has contributed to a sense in the Kurdish region that Sunday’s election is merely a formality and one that would entrench the KDP and the PUK as the dominant parties.

But for smaller opposition groups that have struggled to break into the system, Sunday’s ballot is a critical test of their influence.

Gorran, also known as the Movement for Change, is seeking to improve on the 24 seats out a total of 111 it won in 2013. Leaders from Gorran see Sunday’s election as more open than previous contests, owing to popular discontent over poor governance that has seen public salaries unpaid or delayed and the economic and psychological effects of the failed independence push.

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Gorran had initially opposed the timing of the referendum but eventually supported holding it last September amid intense political pressure.

Ayoub Abdullah Ismael, a Gorran lawmaker, said the Kurdish government has been operating without oversight from parliament for more than five years and that his party would vigorously take on the role of watchdog while improving relations with the central government of Iraq in an effort to release money Baghdad has routinely frozen as leverage over the KRG.

“This election will be the last chance to correct the political process in Kurdistan,” he said. “We will try our best to break the ice with Baghdad for the sake of the people of Kurdistan.”


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