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Political impasse in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region

Iraq’s Kurdistan Region will not have elections until next year. Rivalries between the regional parties have made it impossible for Kurdistan to conduct its own elections. In a major blow to Kurdish autonomy, Baghdad will now step in to conduct the elections.
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Kurdistan

September 11, 2021 – Erbil, Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan Region Parliament. © Serhii Ivashchuk / shutterstock.com

August 10, 2023 23:13 EDT
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Iraq’s Kurdistan Region was supposed to hold regional elections in October 2022 for the Kurdistan Parliament in Erbil, but they now appear unlikely to happen until spring 2024 at the earliest.

Infighting between the two ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), caused the delay. Their lack of mutual trust and inability to agree on technical aspects of the elections created a situation that has heavily damaged the legitimacy of democratic institutions in the Kurdistan Region in the eyes of both citizens and foreign partners. More seriously, however, this malfunctioning governance means that Iraq’s federal government will take control of the local elections process for the first time since 1992, raising doubts about the region’s future as a semi-autonomous entity.

Relations between the KDP and the PUK have deteriorated significantly over the course of the current government, led by Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Masrour Barzani of the KDP. Both parties are going through generational changes, with Barzani taking the day-to-day reins of the KDP and Bafel Talabani seeing off rivals for control of the PUK. The new leaders have failed to forge the competitive-cooperative relationship that their fathers, Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, maintained. Instead, the animus between them is potent, if largely only hinted at in public. Whenever progress appears to be happening in talks between the parties, new events conspire to derail the process, a dynamic that Talabani recently blamed on “a faction” within the KDP.

Beyond the tensions between party leaders, the main stumbling block to the elections was the inability of the KDP and the PUK to agree on whether to change how seats are allocated to ethnic and religious minorities. In the 111-member Kurdistan Parliament, five seats are reserved for Christian parties, five for Turkmen parties, and one for an Armenian representative. These seats are supposed to be elected by members of those groups and require a much smaller electoral threshold. Although designed to reflect the feelings of their communities, the eleven seats have become de facto KDP-controlled. The PUK and opposition parties have long called for a reform of the system, while the KDP has resisted. Efforts to find a reasonable solution that would not simply shift control of some seats to the PUK have been unsuccessful. Despite efforts by the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq and diplomats to broker a compromise, the matter was never resolved.

Lacking an agreement over the minority seats, the parties kept putting off a vote in the Kurdistan Parliament to renew the mandate of the regional electoral commission, which has been responsible for holding non-federal elections in the Kurdistan Region. Once the initial deadline of October 1, 2022 for elections was missed, the four-year term of the parliament itself expired. The region’s three ruling parties (KDP, the PUK and the Gorran Movement) attempted a workaround by controversially passing legislation to extend MPs’ terms by a year. An opposition party and a former parliament speaker filed suit in federal court in Baghdad challenging the law.

In the meantime, Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani declared a new date of November 18, 2023 for the election and the parties continued to half-heartedly negotiate. US Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf sternly clarified during a May 4 visit that Washington needed to see progress. While the PUK remained reluctant to move without a comprehensive agreement, the KDP tried on May 23 to pass legislation renewing the electoral commission’s mandate without the PUK but with support from the minority MPs. The result was a farcical session that devolved into a brawl between legislators in the parliament and dueling legal interpretations of what resulted, with the KDP claiming that the commission was reactivated and could now prepare for elections.

Baghdad takes over for Erbil

The matter was taken out of Kurdish hands, however, when the Federal Supreme Court ruled less than a week later, on May 30, that the extension of the Kurdistan Parliament’s term was unconstitutional. That meant that all legislation passed since November was voided, including the alleged commission renewal. As a result, responsibility for organizing and holding the elections now falls to the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), a federal institution.

It is hard to overstate how serious this development is for Kurdish self-government in Iraq. The ruling parties put their own partisan interests ahead of those of the Kurdistan Region and now a basic function of governance has been taken out of their hands. Combined with other setbacks like the end of independent oil exports and the centralizing aspects of the federal budget that passed on June 11, the future of the Kurdistan Region as a semi-autonomous entity is facing bigger questions than in many years.

In terms of timing for the election, IHEC has said that it will take place no earlier than February 18, 2024, foreclosing the possibility that it could have been held on the November 18 date or concurrently with Iraqi provincial elections on December 18. IHEC needs at least six months to prepare for elections, and with an early spring Ramadan and the Kurdish new year Newroz in March, it is increasingly looking like a late spring 2024 date at the earliest. Another potential stumbling block is that the IHEC’s own mandate needs to be renewed in January. Should that process not go smoothly, the election could be further postponed. Intra-Kurdish tension could also raise its head again to complicate matters.

While the erosion of Erbil’s political authority relative to Baghdad is a major concern, the real losers here are not the squabbling political leaderships of the KDP and the PUK, but the people of the Kurdistan Region. They are now being denied the right to self-governance. It was primarily the Kurdish people who struggled, suffered and died to carve out their own political institutions as a means to protect them from Baghdad. The Anfal genocide and the horrors of the Halabja chemical attack are well-within living memory. Now, the dithering of the ruling parties has denied them the basic democratic right of the ballot box. Self-governance and the right to elections are now at risk. While there has been debate to be had about whether elections in the Kurdistan Region have been free and fair, it is beyond doubt that they are necessary.

[Arab Digest first published this piece.]

[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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