Iraqi Kurds face uncertain future after election turmoil
Voter fraud allegations lead to violence after tumbling economic conditions spark protests over corruption and salary cuts
With the Iraqi parliament and High Judicial Council calling last week for a partial recount of votes cast in last month’s general election – and for a cancelation of many results in the country’s Kurdish region – Iraqi Kurdistan now faces some major political uncertainty.
Allegations of fraud, vote stealing and intimidation in the May 12 ballot are widespread, with “the potential for instability in the region very, very real,” said Kawa Hassan, director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Brussels-based East-West Institute. “It’s getting very complex and very difficult to predict.”
Consisting of four northern provinces and the disputed Kirkuk area, the elections in Iraqi Kurdistan saw a major victory for long-time rulers the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP).
The grouping, dominated by the Barzani family and controlling the regional capital, Erbil, won 25 out of the 85 Iraqi parliamentary seats in those provinces.
Long-time rival and co-ruler in the Kurdish north, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – dominated by the Talabani family and centered on the province of Suleymaniye – won 18, just three seats less than in the last Iraqi elections, held in 2014.
This gave the region’s traditional rulers an overwhelming majority.
“[Yet] given the series of major, transformative events that have recently happened for many, this result was really pretty surprising,” Hassan said.
Last September, the KDP had championed a referendum on independence for the Kurdish region. Yet, following an overwhelming ‘yes’ vote, disaster struck.
Forces loyal to the Iraqi government in Baghdad, along with associated militia groups, swiftly re-occupied around half of the Kurdish region’s territory. This included Kirkuk, with its huge oil and gas reserves, and the main border crossing into neighboring Turkey.
The economy quickly took a major tumble. By March, this led to protests across the region, spearheaded by civil servants demonstrating against salary cuts and corruption.
Conditions, therefore, seemed ripe for the KDP and PUK to suffer major losses in the May elections.
Yet, “elections in the Kurdish region have never been free and fair,” said Kamal Chobani, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy. “Both the army – the Peshmerga – and the police – the Asayish – are affiliated to the KDP and PUK.”
The two parties also control most of the media, along with many local administrations and a major network of patronage.
The low turn-out back in May also probably hampered the opposition. While no definitive figures for the Kurdish region have so far been announced, for Iraq overall, just 44.5% of 24.5 million eligible voters cast a ballot.
“This favored the established parties,” Hassan said. “The KDP and PUK have all sorts of ways of getting their people out to vote, while those who don’t turn out are usually oppositionists or those who have lost faith in the system.”
A third factor may be the lack of an appealing or unified opposition program.
“To be honest, the classical opposition, like Gorran, failed,” said Assistant Professor Bayar Mustafa, from the American University of Kurdistan in Dohuk. “It was too local and couldn’t design a convincing program for the whole of Iraqi Kurdistan.”
In addition, however, there are widespread allegations of fraud, with the region’s minorities reportedly particularly badly affected.
These include the Yazidis – followers of an ancient religion that is unique to northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
They suffered badly under Islamic State assault, back in 2014, with many of their surviving population now living in refugee camps, or in the ruins of their main city, Sinjar.
Their leaders have alleged fraud and the theft of their people‘s votes – an allegation also made by the region’s Christian minority, which also suffered badly under Islamic State.
“These are people who lost sons, daughters, families, and homes,” Mustafa said. “All their votes were stolen. It is a big scandal.”
The KDP and PUK have also accused each other of fraud, while there are allegations, too, that outside powers intervened.
“A lot of people say Iran helped the PUK,” Hassan said, “although it’s hard to get evidence. If you put together all the pieces though, you can see why opposition parties and civil society activists say the results don’t make sense.”
This disbelief turned to anger the night the results were announced. Violence broke out in Suleymaniye when opposition party Gorran denounced the outcome. Peshmerga from the 70th Division – a unit known to be loyal to the PUK – intervened, and several citizens were wounded.
One result of this is that “Gorran has already announced that it is thinking of forming a new militia force of its own,” Chobani said. “The election has thus increased the militarization of the political parties.”
Faced with these allegations – along with a wave of similar complaints about the May 12 ballot – in late May, the Iraqi High Elections Commission (IHEC) canceled results from around 1,000 polling stations, with 103 of these in the Kurdish region.
The out-going Iraqi parliament also voted for a partial cancellation, and on June 6 ordered a nationwide manual recount of the votes. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi blamed the IHEC for “dangerous” violations of electoral procedure, then moved against several high-ranking IHEC members.
The following day, the country’s Judicial High Council announced that it would oversee the recount and investigate alleged fraud.
Still, “I don’t know how they will manually recount 11 million votes,” Hassan said. “I don’t know where they will find the resources.”
Meanwhile, current uncertainty is also being heightened by a major new Turkish cross-border offensive, aimed at bases in Iraqi Kurdistan operated by the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK).
The PKK, which Ankara, the United States and the European Union see as a terrorist group, has been fighting for greater Kurdish autonomy in Turkey since the 1980s.
Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan warned Friday that this offensive might be broadened to include strikes on a United Nations-backed refugee camp south of Erbil, which he claimed was a PKK recruiting ground.
At the same time, too, recent weeks have seen a spike in car bombings and killings on the edge of the Kurdish region, widely blamed on a resurgent Islamic State.
The Kurdish region has its own elections scheduled for September 30, too, with debate now on in Erbil over whether or not to cancel these, given current uncertainties.
“Kurdistan was once the only stable region around,” Mustafa said. “It has been a good example for an area with conflicts all around it. Now though, this is all looking very different.”