Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Kurdish Election Results And Implications

The results of the Kurdistan parliamentary elections are in. As expected, the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party’s (KDP) coalition, the Kurdistan List came in first place with 57.34% of the vote. However the new Change List, led by former PUK officials, came in second with 23.57%. The Service and Reform List came in third with 12%. They are a combination of two Islamic groups, which used to be the largest opposition parties, the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Kurdistan Islamic Group, and two leftist groups, the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party and the Future Party. Kurdistan ran a closed list election, counting all three provinces as a single district. This meant that voters could only pick from lists, and not individual candidates. In that system the parliamentarians are selected by and answer to their party bosses, not the electorate. There were 111 seats up for grabs, but five were set-aside for Christians, five for Turkmen, and one for Armenians. Voters also re-elected Massoud Barzani, the leader of the KDP, to be the region’s president. This election could have far-ranging effects on not only the politics within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), but the rest of Iraq as well.

Kurdish Parliamentary Election Results
111 seats up for election by 24 parties
Kurdistan List 57.34%
Change List 23.57%
Services and Reform List 12%
5 seats for Christians
5 seats for Turkmen
1 seat for Armenians

Kurdish Presidential Election Results
Massoud Barzani – Kurdistan List 69.57%
Dr. Kamal Mirawdeli 25.32%
Halo Ibrahim Ahmed – Progress List 3.49%
Safin Sheikh Mohammed 1.4%
Hussein Karmiani 0.59%

First, the vote is likely to change the power dynamics between the KDP and PUK. Since 1992 when Kurdistan got its autonomy the two parties have had a rough, and sometimes tense, joint rule over the KRG. In the first two elections in 1992 and 2005 the two evenly split their seats 50-50 in the Kurdish parliament. The two also signed a Unification Agreement in January 2006, which divided up the major positions in the region between them. The PUK however, has been breaking apart due to internal struggles for years now. In 2005 a reform wing was formed within the party that wanted greater say in decision-making, more transparency, and a crackdown on corruption. The head of the Change List and former PUK co-founder Nishurwan Mustafa came to head this faction, and eventually left the party in 2006. Dozens of others would join him or be kicked out of the party in the following years. In 2008 for example, a group called the Movement for Democratic Change was expelled from the party, and in February 2009 the secretary general of the PUK, who was also the vice president of the KRG, and several other leading members threatened to quit. PUK leader and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is also old and ailing. Further weakening the party is the fact that the Change List allegedly won Sulaymaniya in the election, the stronghold of the PUK. All together this has greatly reduced Talabani’s standing in Kurdistan. He and his party may not be able to maintain their equal status with Barzani and the KDP as a result.

Barzani has already hinted at this change in dynamics. Under the Unification Agreement, the PUK is to take over the office of prime minister in the KRG from the KDP. Massoud Barzani’s nephew Nechirvan Barzani currently holds the post, and Iraqi deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih of the PUK is supposed to succeed him. However Massoud Barzani recently asked why the PUK should hold that post.

Barzani may be in an even stronger position if a referendum is held on the new Kurdish constitution. A draft of the document was passed by the Kurdish parliament on June 24, 2009, and gives the president new wide-ranging powers. These include the ability to dissolve parliament, pass and veto laws, remove ministers, and command over the peshmerga. For these reasons the Change List say they are opposed to the constitution and want it revised and have filed a motion in the Iraqi courts, but Barzani says they don’t have the two-thirds necessary in the parliament to do that. Joost Hilterman of the International Crisis Group recently noted that this is a paradox as Barzani is one of the great proponents of federalism and decentralization in Iraq, but is trying to centralize power in the KRG.

Finally, Barzani is one of the main opponents of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, so relations between Baghdad and Kurdistan are not likely to improve anytime soon. Kirkuk is one of the main disputes between them, and yesterday, July 28, 2009, he told the press that he rejected the United Nation’s recommendations on the disputed territories, and that the only solution was for Article 140 to be implemented that calls for a referendum. Earlier in July Barzani warned that Baghdad and Kurdistan were close to war over the issue. The KRG draft constitution also lays claims to all of these areas as part of a historical greater Kurdistan. To add to the problem, Barzani and Maliki have not talked to each other in more than a year. When they were things were no better as Barzani said the Prime Minister smelled like a dictator and was acting like a new Saddam.

The 2009 Kurdish elections look to be bringing good and bad results. On the positive side, Kurdistan will have a real opposition for the first time. That will hopefully make the PUK and KDP more responsive to the voters, develop the region, and reduce their corruption. On the negative side, the ruling parties will still hold control of the top political offices and security forces with the KDP looking to surpass the PUK. If the Kurdish constitution is passed that will cement the KDP’s position as the dominant Kurdish party with Barzani’s expanded executive authority. With this new sense of power and national elections due in January 2010, there is little reason for Barzani to compromise or make amends with Baghdad, maintaining the gridlock in Iraq’s politics.


Alaaldin, Ranj, “Troubled times in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Guardian, 7/23/09

Alsumaria, “Results of Kurdistan Presidential and Parliamentary Elections 2009,” 7/29/09
- “Talabani to share power within his party,” 2/18/09

Aswat al-Iraq, “IHEC says initial results to come out in 2 days,” 7/26/09

Carpenter, J. Scott and Ali, Ahmed, “Iraqi Kurds Go to the Polls: Is Change Possible?” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 7/23/09

Dagher, Sam, “New Kurdish Leader Asserts Agenda,” New York Times, 7/29/09
- “Opposition Rattles a Governing Coalition in Iraqi Kurds’ Vote,” New York Times, 7/26/09

Danly, James, “The 2009 Kurdish Elections,” Institute for the Study of War,” 7/23/09

Hama-Tahir, Wrya, “Prominent former PUK leader accused of using dissident faction as proxy to settle political scores,” Institute of War & Peace Reporting, 12/5/08

Hamad, Qassim Khidhir, “Kurdish election lists,” Niqash, 6/30/09

Khalil, Lydia, “Stability in Iraqi Kurdistan: Reality or Mirage?” Brookings Institution, June 2009

Mahmoud, Amer, “controversy over Kurdish constitution,” Niqash, 7/6/09

Shadid, Anthony, “After Kurdish Vote, Talabani Pledges to Rebuild Party,” Washington Post, 7/29/09
- “Kurdish Leaders Warn Of Strains With Maliki,” Washington Post, 7/17/09
- “Worries About A Kurdish-Arab Conflict Moves To Fore in Iraq,” Washington Post, 7/27/09

Stansfield, Gareth Anderson, Liam, “Kurds in Iraq: the struggle between Baghdad and Erbil,” Middle East Policy, Spring 2009

Synovitz, Ron, “Expert Focuses On Significance Of Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Elections,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 7/25/09

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