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Iraqi Kurdistan in the Throes of Two Elections!
As I write this piece from the comfort of my desk in London, Iraqi Kurds are in all likelihood getting ready to go to the ballot boxes on 25th July - in nine short days - to cast their votes in the regional parliamentary and presidential elections.

16 July   |   2009   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

But I am not unduly concerned about writing this piece before the elections rather than after them. After all, barring any huge surprises, it is evident to me that the outcome of both those elections is almost a foregone conclusion - not in the sense that they are necessarily rigged, but because the two Kurdish major ruling parties will definitely be the clear winners. Indeed, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that have come together under the Kurdistan List to give themselves an even stronger impetus with the voters, will inevitably continue their winning streak since 1992 by garnering a majority of seats in parliament and also re-electing Massoud Barzani as president for another term.

However, underneath those nostrums, some perceptible changes have nonetheless become palpable and realities are slowly but inexorably shifting in Iraqi Kurdistan. 2009 is no more 1991, and we are neither in the Saddam years with horrific bloodbaths the likes of the Anfal campaign in 1988 nor even in the phase immediately following the 2005 elections. Today, young Kurds have become politically much savvier and they are no longer fixated on past struggles but are trying to change the conventional two-party duopoly that has been the configuration of Kurdistan for decades. No wonder those elections witness the participation of twenty political groupings and might well augur the germination of a potential multi-party system and even of power-sharing in the regional government - if not in 2009, then in the next electoral round.

I believe that this unmistakable track in democratic development is healthy for Iraqi Kurdish politics. After all, by winning even a minority number of seats - say, anything near 20% - in the regional parliament, opposition parties such as ‘Goran’ and ‘Khizmet u Chaksazi’ [Services and Reform] might create a new opposition voice that could begin to challenge the monopolisation of power held for seventeen years by the KDP and PUK. This would introduce new blood into Kurdish politics, strengthen Iraqi Kurdish institutions, help imbed a sense of good governance that goes hand-in-hand with real democracy and the rule of law and introduce a gradual movement for change - synonymous with progression - in the region.

However, despite those encouraging changes, I believe they are still below par by Eurocentric standards and there is quite a long snaking road ahead. For instance, I wonder why expatriate Kurds have been specifically debarred from the elections. Is it a fear by the joint Kurdistan List that young and expatriate Kurds allowed to vote would do so in favour of the opposition parties - and in the process weaken further the hold on power by established politicians? My sense of wonderment augments further when I also realise that those same expatriate Iraqis who are being disallowed from voting in this region will still do so in the forthcoming Iraqi national elections. Is the central government in Baghdad now more proactive than Kurdistan in the democracy stakes despite Kurdish claims to openness? I would sit up and take notice if I were a Kurdish politician today!

Those elections are central for reasons transcending abstract principles or sheer aspirations: they affect a number of concrete and practical issues since developments in post-25th July Kurdistan will have national repercussions. I would suggest that Iraq faces pressing existential challenges ahead of it, and those can only be dealt with if all Iraqi communities work together. But even then, Iraqis cannot solve their problems alone. US mediation along the lines of the Dayton Proximity Talks for Bosnia could essentially help cajole the different Iraqi parties together so they broker the framework for a peace agreement.

In the midst of numerous ‘hot issues’, let me quickly highlight two critical issues that impact Iraqi lives nationwide.

The first highly-contentious issue focuses on disputed territories - particularly Kirkuk with its Sunnis, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians - and how to apportion power, territory and resources (such as oil and gas) along the trigger line that divides de facto Iraqi Kurdish and Arab territories. Any electoral results will not only affect the overall unity of the country and its levels of tension but also the prospects for violence once the US troops complete their withdrawal in 2010 and 2011.

The second issue is the welfare of the smaller Iraqi communities that sometimes bear the bloody brunt of violence. The authorities have a duty of protection toward them, and some readers might have heard of the deadly attacks on Christian churches three days ago. According to an ICG report, violence occurs in the Kurdish areas too, such as in the Nineveh plain that is home to the Shabak people who have at times suffered at the hands of groups like the Kurdish ‘Assayish’ secret police. We should be vigilant of endemic discrimination against powerless people who are part of the Iraqi mosaic too.

Two elections, two results, two political maps but only one future: the weeks and months ahead will prove whether Iraqis can shuffle their electoral cards wisely enough and whether they succeed in turning away from the yellowed pages of their history toward an irenic consensus over their future. Elections help clarify choices, just as they might also nudge Iraqis to stop thinking only of their all-too-familiar past and start drawing the roadmap for their future.

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2009   |   16 July


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