Unprecedented elections mark turning point in Kurdish democracy

Regardless of how opposition fares in elections, an important platform has been set for reform, prosperity and evolvement that should not be wasted.

The unprecedented, emotional and colorful election campaigns were concluded, and the time had come to cast votes on 25th July 2009, with millions of eager Kurds turning out on an historic Election Day.

While it may take days for result to be announced as the ballots boxes are counted, Kurds waiting anxiously can be sure of one thing, the election was just the right tonic to kick start sociopolitical development in the region, send a subtle jolt down the established elite in Kurdistan, embolden democracy in the region and crucially afford the Kurds the next platform on which to advance and prosper, in tentative and hostile times.

Regardless of how many seats Nawshirwan Mustafa’s refreshing political opposition, Goran (“change”) List, wins at these elections, they can be given huge credit for making the elections a competitive, energetic and taboo-breaking spectacle that can allow democracy and modernization in the region to assume the next gear.

Arguably, nowhere in the world have election campaigns been as passionate and colorful than in Kurdistan. The choice available at these elections, with 24 lists competing for 111-seats of the Kurdish National Assembly, ensured that political interest was rekindled in the region.

It is now the turn of the new political establishment after these elections to fulfill the promises to the people and ensure that the strong tides that have been created from these latest elections and the historic opportunity that it brings is not wasted.

The political battle scene

Traditional political heavyweights in the region, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) spearheaded by incumbent Kurdistan Region President, Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, may have been the fiercest of rivals in the past, but have united in recent elections under one banner.

This time under the Kurdistani List, they are expected to be confirmed as the victors at the polls once more. However, perhaps the fact that the two historic opponents have needed to battle side-by-side and unite as closely as ever to secure victory says much about the healthy nature of the electoral campaigning at this election.

The newest newcomer to the political fold in the region, the Goran List head by Mustafa, who broke away from the PUK leadership earlier this year, has proved to be greatest challenger to the status quo.

The influence of the new opposition

The support of the Goran List has seemingly gathered pace as the campaign bandwagon headed towards Election Day. The Goran List was as much of a political organization as a sociopolitical revolution in the region.

Their manifesto was simple, it promotes change in the political institutions and hierarchy of the region and is designed to serve as a different flavor and a distinct alternative for the Kurdish masses – arguably, what that they have lacked since the first historic Kurdish elections in 1992.

Goran has based its support on taking advantage of the disgruntled sentiments of large sections of the Kurdish population, who air common frustration at the current government.

A common theme has been Goran Lists determination to combat corruption and elitism in the region. It has accused key parties of been more interested in keeping power than undertaking necessary reform. Its support base has been mainly in the eastern parts of the Kurdistan Region, around the city of Sulaimaniya were it is expected to pose a huge challenge particularly to the traditional stalwarts of the area, the PUK.

It also has strong following amongst an expectant youth, who are frustrated with opportunities. Other frustrated voices have complained about living standards, bureaucracy and lack of employment.

The increasing productive role of the youth at these elections is most welcome, after all they are the very future of the region and as such political advancement, reform and prosperity cannot be achieved without their advent support, active involvement and direct interest.

The other key challengers are the Service and Reform List, an alliance comprising two Islamist parties, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), and the Kurdistan Islamic Group and two leftist parties, the Toilers Party and the Social Democrat Party. They group has 18 seats in the current parliament, and a similar showing at the polls would significantly boost the power of the opposition alongside the Goran List.

The likely winners

Although Goran are expected to do make credible gains at the elections, this shouldn’t sway one away from the reality that both Barzani and Talabani still enjoy momentous support across the country. While the PUK support base may have been rocked around the Sulaimaniya region, it still enjoys popular support and the KDP still has formidable support particularly around Duhok.

The support base of the KDP and PUK is noticeable amongst old generation of Kurds, many of whom are veterans who fought in the tough days of discrimination and oppression, far from the relative prosperity and freedom of today.

The iconic and historic part that the KDP and PUK and their leaders have played in the situation of Kurdistan today is etched in Kurdish memory. However, this fact sits more deeply with the older Kurds, who suffered bitterly in the dark days of Baathist rule and feel a debt of gratitude and loyalty to the ruling parties.

While other supporters of the Kurdistani List point to the economic boom in recent years and Kurdish gains since 2003.

The youth inspired by opportunity, the possibility of migration to abroad and growing expectations are becoming less sympathetic to the nationalist card of these long-established parties.

Although, the added focus on the motion of change is a refreshing addition to the political scene and one which the Kurdistani List must pay heed, powerful and well-known incumbents are also a key prerequisite for Kurds to safeguard their gains in the region and in order to prosper economically and strategically in a hostile region.

Presidential elections

For the first time in Kurdish history, the president is to be chosen directly by the people. Kurdish nationalist icon and incumbent president, Massoud Barzani, is widely-expected to win the race by a landslide.

Much in the same as established parties give the region a stronger hand in difficult times, the appointment of Barzani in a second presidential term would serve as a boost to the region.

Barzani is a well known and respected figure, and one who airs the authority and experience that the fledging region still requires.

Barzani strikes the right balance between dealing strongly with neighboring countries whilst at the same time emphasizing the importance of mutual ties, which the region is greatly dependent upon. In particular, key issues with Baghdad such as article 140 and revenue sharing, requires a strong figure and a determined nationalistic mindset.

Barzani has expressed strong rhetoric in recent years on political reform and paying heed to the wishes of the people, there must now be strong pressure from the top in ensuring parliamentary promises are fulfilled. The example of reform and setting motions to deal with current perceived failings of the government must start from the very top.

The way forward

What is clear is that regardless of the election results, the next Kurdish parliament is under pressure to deliver, to change the system of government and press towards reform.

The Kurdistani List are likely to win the next elections, but they can rest on their laurels at their peril, with people now anticipating that the next 4 years will live up to the election campaign euphoria.

If there was any notion of political comfort from the ruling elite, then these elections should serve to change that. Certainly, if the people continue to be disgruntled with the KDP and PUK at the next elections, then their majority will erode even further.

The next government must ensure more transparency and accountability, with an independent and respected judiciary system underpinning the new order.

It is an ideal scenario for the region to finally have credible opposition in parliament. It not only emboldens democracy, but healthy competition is just the ingredient encourage to boost political progression.

The Kurdistani List will now have to contend with a major opposition in parliament, and the influence of the opposition will be noticeable on key regional policies, especially relations with Baghdad, where a more reconciliatory tone is likely.

These elections will undoubtedly server as a turning point in the Kurdish democratic experience.

Healthy competition from within, unity from the outside

No matter how competitive and heated election and political jockeying becomes, the main thing is to ensure that perception of unity is not distorted to the outside world.

Many elements from within Baghdad and neighboring countries, wish to capitalize on instability and political uncertainty and at the current time when important national fundamentals such resolving disputed territories and oil sharing are contentiously debated, a weakening of the regions hands would be highly counter-productive.

First Published On: Kurdish Globe

Other Publication Sources: Peyamner, Various Misc.

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