Iraq’s Election Commission recently announced that provincial balloting in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) would be delayed once more. This was the fourth time that the authorities had put off the voting. Legal problems were the given reason for the latest postponement, but the real cause was the political maneuverings of the Kurdish parties.
In June 2012, Kurdistan’s provincial elections were put off one more time. They were originally scheduled for September 27, 2012. 92 seats were up for grabs, with 31 in Irbil, 32 in Sulaymaniya, and 29 in Dohuk. On June 5, Iraq’s Election Commission requested that the voting be delayed. The official reason was that the Kurdish election law only allowed Christians to elect Christian candidates. The Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) parliament was supposed to come up with new voting legislation, and then the balloting would be re-scheduled. The three Kurdish opposition parties, the Change List, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, and the Kurdistan Islamic Group objected as they were expecting to make gains against the two ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The KRG has not had elections since 2005. This was at least the fourth time that the voting had been canceled, which made the legal issue just the latest excuse to not hold them.
Kurdish authorities have come up with various reasons not to have the balloting for the governorates. Originally, the KRG was to have elections in 2009 when the rest of the country was due for them. (1) Instead, the Kurdish parliament extended the mandate for all the governorate level politicians. October 2010 was then set as the new date, but the head of the Kurdish Election Board later suggested that be pushed back, because Kurdistan just had parliamentary elections in 2009, and Iraq was having national voting as well in March 2010. (2) Next, September 2011 was the new time, and $25 million was even allotted for its administration in June. This occurred while there were large protests going on in Sulaymaniya, and the government wanted to appease them. By July however, the KRG claimed that a new election law had to be passed, and things were put off again. In December, September 2012 was announced as the newest date. Once again, a new excuse was made when in May the Election Commission stated that voting should be put off, because new commissioners had to be appointed by parliament. The various excuses made in the last three years showed that the KRG was not serious about having provincial elections. One reason after another was propagated until now when there isn’t even a new date set for them to occur.
The real reason why the governorate elections are not happening is the two ruling Kurdish parties do not want them to. First, the balance between the two lists has dramatically changed in recent years. In 2009, Kurdistan held voting for its regional parliament. A new party, the Change List won 25 out of 111 seats, taking many votes away from the PUK. Then, at the beginning of 2011, protests broke out in Sulaymaniya, the base of the Patriotic Union. These two events greatly weakened the PUK. It was not only losing at the ballot box, but its standing with the young was fading, and it appeared that it could not even control its own territory. That meant in effect, the KDP became the dominant of the two. That is one main motivation for the series of delays, because the PUK could lose even more if a new round of voting was held. That would upset the power sharing agreement that the two ruling parties have with each other. This is why there has been a slew of reporting recently that the Patriotic Union is trying to reach out to the Change List, with some even implying that the two could run together against the KDP. Associate Professor of Political Science at Wright State University Liam Anderson pointed out that the elections are basically meaningless, which is another factor. The way Kurdistan is organized the Regional Government has all the real authority and power over finances and resources, making the provincial officials largely powerless. There is no real reason for the KDP and PUK to have the elections then. Even the opposition parties know this, and therefore have complained about the voting not happening, but has not push it any farther, because if they happened, the most the parties could get would be a symbolic victory. This combination of the decline of the PUK, and the lack of power in the provincial offices means that there is no real motivation for Kurdish officials to push ahead with the balloting. The only exception would be if the PUK and Change List were able to overcome their differences, and run together, then there might be an opening. Otherwise, there will be more and more delays.
Iraqi law requires provincial elections every four years. Kurdistan has been able to ignore that for the last three years. Officials have come up with one justification after another for not holding them from having the balloting too close to others, to no election law, or problems with the existing one. More are to come, because the PUK and KDP would rather maintain the status quo, than open the door for the former to lose out even more to the latter, and for the opposition to perhaps gain more positions even if they are not really important. The ruling parties determining everything in Kurdistan, and if they don’t want to do something, it doesn’t get done. That’s the case with the Kurdish provincial elections, which shows the limits of democracy in Iraq today.
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