The Independent Gateway to Kurdish News and Analyses

The evolution of the modern electoral process in the Kurdistan Region


Kurdish Herald Vol. 1 Issue 3, July 2009 -

by Delovan Barwari


Today, spirits are running high in the streets of Iraqi Kurdistan as the upcoming regional elections on 25 July 2009 approach. Kurdish television stations, newspapers, online news sources, blogs, and chat rooms have been dominated by this monumental event in Kurdish history as the preparation for the third parliamentary election and the first direct election for the presidency of Kurdistan region is underway. Undeniably, it will be a transformative test case for Iraqi Kurdistan.


As Operation Desert Storm drew to a close, United States President George H. W. Bush encouraged the Iraqi people to rise up against the regime of Saddam Hussein, stating, “The day [Saddam] and his regime are removed from power will be the day of [the Iraqi people’s] liberation.”


Kurdistan Parliament, Erbil, Kurdistan - Iraq


As Kurds rose up and liberated the vast majority of the Kurdistan Region, a ceasefire between the US-led coalition and the defeated Iraqi army allowed Saddam’s ground forces to launch a large military attack, massacring tens of thousands of civilians in the process. Kurdish civilians were forced to flee their homes, taking refuge on the border regions of Iran and Turkey.


The Iraqi regime officially withdrew its administrative institutions from Iraq’s three northernmost provinces in October 1991. During the same period, the Kurdistan Front, a coalition of seven Kurdish political parties led by the two largest - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - began a series of negotiations that led to a collective agreement on a parliamentary system. A special committee was created involving the representatives of various Kurdish political parties, intellectuals, judges, and lawyers. The end result was the formation of the first Kurdistan Election Law, preparing the groundwork for the first free and democratic elections in Kurdistan.


On 19 May 1992, the region was filled with an atmosphere of joy and unity and nearly a million votes were casted. The results were a near tie between the two main Kurdish parties, KDP winning approximately 51% of the vote and PUK winning 49%. To avoid tensions between the two parties, they agreed on a 50/50 power sharing formula. However, the unity did not last long as rivalry and mistrust grew between the PUK and KDP. In 1994, the two factions entered a bloody civil war that resulted in the creation of two separate regional administrations in Erbil (run by the KDP) and Sulaymaniyah (run by the PUK), creating a deep division in Kurdish society. The two administrations officially reunited in Erbil in October 2002, but many major tasks remained divided by the two parties long after this reunification event.


When a smaller US-led coalition initiated its invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the KDP and PUK presented a unified military front and worked with the US to defeat Saddam’s forces in northern Iraq. In particular, Kurdish forces played a major role in driving Saddam’s forces out of Mosul and Kerkuk. Following the disintegration of Saddam’s regime, the Kurdish leadership was far more organized and sophisticated than most of its counterparts in post-Saddam Iraq, giving Kurds the ability to greatly influence the establishment of the new Iraqi political system and allowing them to politically guarantee their own rights in the new Iraqi constitution.


The first post-Saddam national elections in Iraq took place on 30 January 2005. In parallel, elections for parliament were held in the Kurdistan Region. Nearly all of the Kurdish political parties along with the Chaldo-Assyrian, and Turkmen parties entered the elections under a banner called the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan (DPAK). In both the national election and the regional election, DPAK scored a major victory, became a major player in Iraqi politics, and Kurds were able to expand their political influence in Baghdad. As a result of DPAK’s strong showing in the national parliamentary elections, PUK Secretary General Jalal Talabani, became the first Kurd in Iraq’s history to become president of the country.


Election campaign propoganda covers an overpass in Erbil - Photo courtesy Natsumi Ajiki



Thus far, 2009 has already been a year of monumental elections. The year began with Iraq holding provincial elections in 14 of 18 provinces; the KRG-administered provinces did not participate, nor did the disputed region of Kerkuk. Elections in Kerkuk have been postponed indefinitely. However, the Kurdish parties did participate in elections in disputed areas excluding Kerkuk, with significant showings in the provinces of Nineveh and Diyala.


In Turkey, nationwide municipal elections saw the rise of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) as the voice of predominantly Kurdish regions of Turkey, perhaps providing an opening for a sincere dialogue addressing the Kurdish question in Turkey. In Iran, alleged vote-rigging in presidential elections resulted in widespread protests that provided the most serious challenge to the existing regime in many years.

The timing of the elections in Turkey, Iraq, and especially the civil unrest on the streets of Iran has increased excitement in Iraqi Kurdistan as the parties and masses prepare for elections scheduled on 25 June 2009. The upcoming elections will be the third parliamentary and first direct presidential elections in the region. Kurdish Globe reported that the IHEC office has announced the names of registered 42 political lists, and 509 candidates that will be competing for 111 seats in the Kurdistan parliament. Eleven seats have been allocated to represent the Assyrian, Armenian, and Turkmen minority communities in the KRG-administered provinces.


On 25 March 2009, four articles were added and three amendments were made to the Kurdistan Election Law. Highlights of these new developments are as follows:

The elections will be a closed list and conducted by the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq (IHEC);

The political entities must consist of candidates with a minimum of 25 years of age, and a 30% female representation; they must be residents of Kurdistan and represent the entire region;

The law pertaining to the Presidency of Kurdistan region requires the candidate to be a citizen and resident of Kurdistan of Iraq; to be not less than 40 years of age on the election date, and to have valid civil and political rights.

Many factors will influence the outcome of the upcoming elections in Kurdistan. Opposition slates are aiming to play to the frustrations of the masses, focusing on issues such as corruption, nepotism, lack of economic transparency, and the lack of resolution concerning the status of Kerkuk and other disputed areas. Indeed, the slogans of these opposition groups appear fairly similar, calling for reform and change. However, in an attempt to retain their hold on the region, the current ruling parties have been emphasizing their rich history and the sacrifices made in the past in the name of the Kurdish cause, while also attempting to provide concrete facts outlining the accomplishments of the KRG over the last few years, and highlighting their success in protecting the region from terrorist attacks.


Furthermore, in apparent move to win voters’ confidence, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani, unveiled a new plan as late as 12 July 2009 to counter corruption by hiring an international firm to assist the administration. The prime minister stated, "PricewaterhouseCoopers is a well-known international company that works in 150 countries and can eliminate corruption."


The biggest political block competing in the parliamentary elections is the Kurdistan List, a coalition of the two dominant political parties, the KDP and PUK. In the previous elections, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) was seen as the strongest opposition challenging the ruling parties in the polls. However, perhaps in an attempt to optimize their number of votes, the KIU has allied with the Islamic Group in Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Socialist Party, and the Kurdistan Toilers Party to form a coalition known as the Service and Reform List, also known as the Four Parties List.


Most significantly, a new opposition group, known as the List for Change, has entered the scene. The List for Change, led by former PUK deputy Newshirwan Mustafa, is believed to be the main challenger to the Kurdistan List, and has gained popularity and support by promising to reform the way in which the KRG administers the region and provides services to the people. Observers note, however, that Mustafa’s popularity is limited geographically due to his record of leading old rivalries between the province of Sulaymaniyah and the rest of the Kurdistan Region.


In addition, most recently, a smaller list receiving some attention called the Kurdistan Reform Movement has been formed, which is comprised of 14 candidates and is led by Dr. Abdul-Musawar Barzani, a professor at University of Sulaymaniya and cousin of President Massoud Barzani.


In the race for the Presidency of Kurdistan region, the most well-known and perhaps most popular candidate is, of course, the incumbent, Massoud Barzani. President Barzani is widely expected to win the elections by a great margin. Four other candidates are competing: Halo Ibrahim Ahmad, the brother in law of Jalal Talabani. Kamal Mirawdali, a scholar, writer, and a poet formerly based in London; Hussein Garmiani and Safeen Sheikh Mohammad, two independent Kurdish businessmen.


In the 2005 election, one of the main slogans of DPAK was the promise to resolve the status of Kerkuk and other disputed territories in favor of Kurds. However, the ruling parties have yet to fulfill that promise. On 24 June 2009, a new constitution was approved in Kurdistan Parliament, which defines the Kurdistan Region as including the disputed areas of Kerkuk, Nineveh, and Diyala.


The KRG originally sought to hold this referendum on the same day as the July 25 parliamentary and presidential election, though Iraq’s electoral commission ruled out the possibility, stating, "The commission finds it impossible to organize the referendum at the same time as the presidential and legislative polls because this would affect the credibility and integrity of the [electoral] process”. The proposed new constitution is well regarded by many Kurds, but it has caused uneasiness within the Iraqi central government, as well as with Kurdish opposition groups for a variety of reasons.


Magazines in Erbil with photos of N. Mustafa, J. Talabani, and M. Barzani on front pages - Photo courtesy Natsumi Ajiki


Indeed, it appears that the upcoming election will be a great milestone in modern Kurdish history and a crucial step forward in the development of democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan. Without a doubt, the election will serve as a catalyst in the transformation of the political norms. Furthermore, it will likely open the door for the creation of an atmosphere more amenable to open political debate. This will pave the way to a change in the political mentality and norms of the society of Iraqi Kurdistan. It will also hopefully make the parties feel truly accountable to the people, and influence all participants in the political process to act with greater transparency. Such a result would be a victory for all people of Iraqi Kurdistan, regardless of which candidates they support.





Click here to return to Latest Issue