How the Kurdish opposition parties missed a historical opportunity to challenge KDP and PUK?

The election season has started in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). The Kurdistan Region’s Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission (IHERC) accepted 29 electoral lists and alliances for the September 30th parliamentary elections. The polls come amid voters’ uncertainty, pessimism and the erosion of public faith in the electoral process following widespread allegations of fraud during the May 12 Iraqi parliamentary elections. The results of which have yet be authenticated by the federal court.

Arguably, the five Kurdish opposition parties of Goran, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG), the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ) and Nawai Nwe (NN, New Generation) had a historic opportunity to form an electoral alliance which could have posed a serious challenge to the long-standing duopoly rule of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The absence of such an alliance will undermine each party’s chance to mount meaningful opposition to the prevailing political binary.     

Backed and encouraged by some international organizations, Iraq adopted an electronic voting system to count the election votes, which cost the country $135 millions of dollars. The digitized system was supposed to reduce electoral fraud and boost public trust in the democratic system. But it did the complete opposite: voter confidence in the electoral process appears to be at its lowest point since 2004. Kurdish voters, in general, believe that their participation is pointless as the results are, to some extent, pre-determined. The democratic process, they believe, has been manipulated by the ruling political parties.

With the discrediting of the electronic voting system in the public eyes, the IHERC, in consultation with the political parties, decided in June to shift back to the traditional manual count in the KRI’s parliamentary election. This is considered a partial remedy to mitigate the risks of electoral fraud through hacking to tamper and skew the results. Meanwhile, it also, potentially, re-injects confidence in the process. The opposition parties, previously advocates of the electronic voting mechanisms, have changed their tune following the contested vote in May. They now adamantly insist on manual counting which they believe will minimize fraud and increase their electoral chances.

At the moment, the challenge for the smaller Kurdish parties is to develop a working mechanism to turn the pessimism of the Kurdish voters into optimism that change is possible via the ballot box. They must convince the public that their participation in the September elections is necessary for political and economic transformations.

At just 48%, voter turnout across the KRI the May 12 elections was historically low compared with previous elections held in the region. Despite the allegations of fraud committed by the ruling parties, it has become clear that the die-hard supporters of the KDP and the PUK constituted the majority of the voters in the Iraqi elections, while the voters of the opposition parties refused to take part in the elections. If the same pattern repeats itself in the September 30 polls, it is most likely that the existing dual rule of the KDP and the PUK will remain intact despite the negative consequences suffered following the ill-fated independence referendum, loss of Kirkuk and the worsening economic situation.  The IHERC warned that voter registration is already low. In Suleimanyah, only 28,000 voters out of 1.2 million eligible voters have visited registration centers to verify their names to take part in the elections.

Some talks were held between the opposition parties to form electoral alliances and optimistic statements were issued showing a collective willingness to join forces and challenge the KDP and the PUK in the upcoming elections. But instead of a real, calibrating strategy, the impulse for such electoral alliance appeared to have been more about the sense of common sympathy formed as a result of the alleged rigged Iraqi elections. In addition, political differences and self-serving calculations largely prevented such efforts from materializing, eventually. Yet, the KIU and the Kurdistan Islamic Movement (KIM) eventually did form an alliance under the name of “Baraw Islah” (Towards reform). However, given the small base of the KIM and the diminishing KIU’s popularity, it’s unlikely that such an alliance will make any difference on the Kurdish political landscape.

Moreover, Kurdish opposition parties find themselves in competition for the same votes. For example, in the past the only credible opposition group was Gorran but now the field is overcrowded. NN and CDJ, as new entities won 6 seats between them during 12 May Iraqi elections. NN’s strategy has been not to only challenge the traditional ruling parties, but to paint every single Kurdish political party, including the opposition, with the same negative brush. NN has not joined any alliance with any political party to date, nor it has showed willing to do so. To advance its cause, it has turned NRT media, once praised as an independent Kurdish news outlet, as a party political platform to undermine NN’s political rivals.

It has been reported that the four opposition parties may sign an agreement to avoid negative campaigns against one another during the election campaigns, and shift their focus toward the ruling parties. It’s not clear whether the agreement can materializ or be implemented during what is expected to be a heated election campaign.

By failing to reach an agreement to form an electoral alliance, the CDJ, Gorran, KIU and the KIG missed a golden opportunity to shake up the KDP and the PUK’s power. Such alliance could have just not challenged the KDP and the PUK, but to re-inject the much-needed public credence in the electoral and the political processes in the KRI as the only amicable mechanism to make political and economic changes.

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About MERI:  The Middle East Research Institute is Iraq’s leading policy-research institute and think tank. It is an independent, entirely grant-funded not-for-profit organisation, based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.  Its mission is to contribute to the process of nation-building, state-building and democratisation via engagement, research, analysis and policy debates.

MERI’s main objectives include promoting and developing human rights, good governance, the rule of law and social and economic prosperity. MERI conduct high impact, high quality research (including purpose-based field work) and has published extensively in areas of: human rights, government reform, international politics, national security, ISIS, refugees, IDPs, minority rights (Christians, Yezidis, Turkmen, Shabaks, Sabi mandeans), Baghdad-Erbil relations, Hashd Al-Shabi, Peshmarga, violence against women, civil society. MERI engages policy- and decision-makers, the civil society and general public via publication, focused group discussions and conferences (MERI Forum).

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