Tuesday, October 1, 2013

KRG Elections Change Region's Politics, But Will It Change The Government?

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) recently completed its latest parliamentary elections in September 2013. The results shook up Kurdish politics. One of the ruling parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) finished 3rd behind its partner the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP and the opposition Change List. The Islamic parties ran separately, dividing their votes. The real question now isn’t the ballot count, but rather what government will come of it. Who will participate, and who will be in opposition will show whether the region is ready for real political reform or not.

Like the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan’s voting took place in two stages. Up for grabs were 100 seats in the regional parliament, along with 11 quota seats for minorities. First was the special voting, which consisted mostly of the security forces. The Election Commission reported that there was a 93% participate rate in that round. Next, was the general vote, which had a 73% voter turn out. Akiko Yoshioka of Tokyo’s Institute of Energy Economics was an international observer in the KRG, and said the balloting process was clean. That hasn’t stopped the Change List, the Kurdistan Islamic Movement, and the PUK to claim voter fraud. Parties in Iraq often complain if they did not do as well as they thought they would. That allows them a way to explain their losses, and happens in nearly every election in the country. Nothing usually comes of it, and that’s likely the case here as well.

Talabani (left) and Barzani’s (right) parties have gone in opposite directions in the 2013 KRG provincial vote (Getty)

The partial results which have been announced mark a shake up of the power structure in the KRG, but they were not surprising. At the end of September, the Election Commission had gone through 95% of the ballots. The KDP was first, followed by the Change List, the PUK was in 3rd, and then the Kurdistan Islamic Union, the Kurdistan Islamic Group, and the Kurdistan Islamic Movement. To round out the top 10 were the Kurdistan Democratic Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Third Trend, and the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Assembly, which is assured at least one seat reserved for minorities.

Early KRG Election Results, Sep. 2013 With 95% Of Ballots Counted
1. KDP 719,004
2. Change 446,095
3. PUK 323,867
4. Kurdistan Islamic Union 178,681
5. Kurdistan Islamic Group 113,260
6. Kurdistan Islamic Movement 20,795
7. Kurdistan Democratic Socialist Party 11,828
8. Communist Party 11,768
9. The Third Trend Toilers Party 8,268
10. Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Assembly 5,599
11. Kurdistan Democratic Solution Party 3,605
12. Rights of Kurdistan People 2,817
13. Party of Kurdistan Governors 2,420
14. Right of the People 2,005
15. Irbil Turkmen List 1,865
16. National Union of Kurdistan Party 1,717
17. Iraqi Turkmen Front 1,667
18. Reform and Progress 1,323
19. Sons of Mesopotamia 1,048
20. Turkmen Democratic Movement 1,002
21. Independents List 864
22. Yorab Nessan Aminaan 517
23. Beshkhan Arsha Bakwyan 342
24. Razkari Kurdistan Party 257
25. Brishan and Hazairan (withdrew) 202
26. Nubar Sipan Gahreeb 127

The KRG doesn’t really have region wide parties. Most are based upon specific provinces, cities, and tribes. The KDP ran with very little opposition in Dohuk and Irbil its stronghold. Beforehand, Kurdish Premier Nechirvan Barzani said that the party wanted to emerge as a clear winner in the election. It did so, largely due to the policies of KRG President Massoud Barzani who was able to portray himself as a nationalist leader with oil deals, development projects in the major cities, ties with Turkey, and his role in the Syrian conflict. That gave the KDP a commanding lead over the other lists, and will put it in the drivers seat when putting together a new government. The PUK found itself going in the opposite direction. Various theories have been floated for the party’s demise, but the real reason was its vacuum at the top. Its head Iraq President Jalal Talabani has been out of the country since December 2012 after he suffered a serious stroke. Like most Iraqi lists, the PUK is a vehicle for its leader. Without him the party is rudderless and divided, and there is no agreed upon successor. Several factions exist within it including Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, who recently resigned as party head in Sulaymaniya after its defeat but remained on the politburo, KRG Vice President Kosurt Rasul, and deputy party secretary Barham Saleh. Who will be Talabani’s successor will probably not be determined until his death. Saleh himself gave an interview with Agence France Presse after the election warning that the party was splitting in Talabani’s absence. Those divisions were seen when Saleh said that the list needed to respect the will of the voters, and then armed PUK members stormed a vote counting center in Sulaymaniya City, driving off Election Commission officials, and allegedly tried to change the ballots. The PUK wanted to see where it stood, and ran alone instead of with the KDP as it had previously done. (1) Now it knows. The Change List surpassed the PUK, which was formed by a former founder of that party Nishurwan Mustafa. It came in second, which puts it in a position to enter into government if it wants. Its ascension was predicted. In September 2012 for instance, Talabani met with Mustafa in Sulaymaniya, and tried to work out an alliance between them. That was put on hold when Talabani was hospitalized. Then in July, a story floated that the PUK offered a power sharing agreement in Sulaymaniya province to Change. That would have been a tremendous concession for a ruling party to make as it has run the governorate by itself for decades. That highlighted the weakness of the PUK, and the rise of the Change List. The Kurdistan Islamic Union finished fourth, but said it was unhappy. In the last election in 2009, it ran with the other Islamic parties, and presented itself as an alternative to the KDP and PUK. In this campaign, it gave up on that image, and said that it was willing to join the government, and that cost it. The finish to the election was predictable to an extent. The KDP was running strong. The PUK was leaderless, and the Change List was the beneficiary. The final seat count has not been announced since all the ballots have not been counted, but each party has a sense of how many it will receive. Now the more important issue of putting together a new government is beginning.

The Change List finished second and now must decide whether they will participate in the new government and under what terms (Gorran)

The real story of the KRG elections will be who is included in the new ruling coalition. Before the vote, the KDP said that it would like a government with the PUK, the Islamic Union, and the minorities, while keeping Change in opposition. As Kamal Chomani of the Kurdistan Tribune pointed out, in the special election, the KDP peshmerga elected two Turkmen candidates out of the five quota seats for that group showing that there might not have been any voter fraud, but there was manipulation. That assures the KDP a larger share in whatever coalition is put together. For its part, the Change List stated that it wants real power if it decides to join. That could cause problems for the party as well as it has its own divisions between the older leadership who came from the PUK, and the younger members. Some may want to participate in the government, and then push for change, while others want real reforms immediately. The KDP is trying to position itself as the majority party in Kurdistan. It has finally surpassed the PUK, and probably does not want a new upstart party like the Change to now enter the game. At the same time, Barzani is in a dominant position, and might be willing to give a few positions to other parties knowing that his will be in the lead.

Whatever government emerges in Kurdistan there will be large expectations awaiting it. Kamal Chomani wrote that the people of the KRG want development, political reforms, and greater transparency. Part of the success of the KDP in this year’s election was that it pointed to all the wealth that it has brought to the region, while the Change List promised just that change. Now that the ballot counting process is almost completed, all of the parties will have to partake in intense negotiations to put together a government. The real linchpin of that process will be whether the KDP is willing to share power with new comers or just give them token positions, while increasing its own standing. That may be determined by whether the opposition parties can work together and present a united list of demands or whether all the winners act independently, which could open the door for a divide and conquer strategy by Barzani. The KRG is definitely going through a political transformation, but it’s still unclear in which direction it will be heading. The September vote was simply one step in this long journey.


1. Rudaw, “Coalition Partner in Kurdistan Says it will Run Independently in Next Polls,” 4/1/13


Abbas, Mushreq, “Iraqi Kurdistan Election Campaigns in Full Swing,” Al-Monitor, 8/30/13
- “PUK Falls to Third Place In Iraqi Kurdistan Elections,” Al-Monitor, 9/27/13

Abdulla, Mufid, “Barham Salih warns of difficulties ahead for the PUK,” Kurdistan Tribune, 9/21/13

Ahmed, Hevidar, “Gorran Opposition Movement Facing Crisis Over National Assembly, Boycott,” Rudaw, 1/15/13
- “PUK in a Quandary After Poll Rout By Gorran,” Rudaw, 9/26/13

AIN, “IHEC: Participation rate of KR elections, 73%,” 9/22/13
- “Kurdish opposition accuses Talabani, Barzani’s parties of forging elections,” 9/24/13

Chomani, Kamal, conversation, 9/30/13
- “Iraqi Kurdistan Elections Could Be Turning Point,” Al-Monitor, 8/28/13
- “Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s Elections: towards Happiness or Disappointment,” World Bulletin, 9/18/13

Coles, Isabel, “Kurd political equation unbalanced by Iraq president’s absence,” Reuters, 3/3/13

Hassan, Hayman, “iraqi kurdish elections: campaigning fierce but change is not expected,” Niqash, 9/12/13

Insight Kurdistan, “Analysis: Pro KDP And Anti-Gorran Or Vice Versa,” 12/31/12

Iraq Times, “Saleh: loss once and evading a shameful decision of the people,” 9/24/13

Jamal, Sangar, “the biggest loser: shift in kurdish political landscape sees major player relegated,” Niqash, 9/26/13

Kurdistan Tribune, “Dana Saeed blames vote rigging & corruption for PUK poll defeat,” 9/24/13
- “PUK supporters fire their guns, but Barham Salih tells them to accept defeat,” 9/24/13

Kurdpress, “Tension enhances between PUK & Gorran supporters over election,” 9/24/13

National Iraqi News Agency, “KDP: there is a possibility of an agreement with the (Change) movement to share power in the region,” 6/6/13

Radio Nawa, “Hero Ibrahim Ahmed resigns from her position as director of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Sulaimaniya,” 9/30/13

Al Rayy, “UNHCR: more than 93% rate of participation in the special voting for the election of the Parliament of Kurdistan,” 9/19/13

Rudaw, “Ahead of Final Count, PUK Accepts Defeat in Kurdistan Polls,” 9/23/13
- “Coalition Partner in Kurdistan Says it will Run Independently in Next Polls,” 4/1/13
- “For First Time since Boycott, Gorran Chief Meets with Disgruntled Party Officials,” 2/14/13
- “Gorran in Government? To Be or Not To Be,” 9/24/13
- “Kurdistan’s Main Islamic Parties Decide to Run Separately in Polls,” 6/7/13
- “Mixed Reaction to Latest Results from Kurdistan Polls,” 9/29/13

Shafaq News, “The electoral distribution and number of entities’ votes of Kurdistan elections,” 9/29/13
- “Kosert: Salih and I caused the loss of PUK,” 9/25/13
- “PUK offers Change to share Sulaymaniyah,” 7/23/13

Yoshioka, Akiko, conversation 9/30/13

Zebari, Abdel Hamid, “Differences Deepen Between Iraqi Kurdish Parties,” Al-Monitor, 3/22/13

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