Kurdistan is no stranger to holding parliamentary elections since it was free from the clutches of Baghdad, but the legislative elections set for 21st September 2013 provide a different flavour for a number of reasons.
The electoral climate is tense, the passions are as elated as above, the stakes are high for the political parties involved but above all else it is the uncertainty at the polls that is most intriguing, placing Kurdistan at a critical juncture.
The tense battle for the 100 seats on offer (11 are reserved for minorities) is set to change the political landscape of Kurdistan.
This is due to a number of factors. Firstly, in an unprecedented step, the ruling parties will run on separate lists swaying from their traditional power–sharing agreements. This is a positive step for the democratic evolvement of Kurdistan and means that the KDP and PUK have to fight their own respective corners, the strength of both sides will be clear to gauge and ultimately no side will need to “carry” the other.
The second key area is whether the Change Movement (Goran) can better the 25 seats it managed to achieve in 2009, particularly at the expense of the PUK in their traditional Sulaimaniya stronghold. Jockeying for votes in Sulaimaniya province has been as fierce as 2009 and the outcome will transform the destiny of either party. Finally, elections will be held under a semi-open electoral system.
Kurdistan finds itself with a new and expectant generation who are harder to appease and demand more from the government. The government has been under pressure to tackle corruption, provide reforms, improve public services, ensure transparency and afford more opportunities for the youth. The election battle will hinge on undecided voters – have the ruling parties made good on their promises in the last 4 years and made enough progress on well-documented areas of improvement and if the voters believe otherwise, are they convinced that Goran can take Kurdish politics to the new level?
The advent of a strong opposition party was a boost for democracy in the Kurdistan Region. The parliamentary sessions may have been much tenser, squabbling more common place and political agreements less straightforward, but Kurdistan needed the angle of political rivalry and less certain decision making. A firm opposition also ups the political ante and ensures ruling powers are not complacent.
However, despite the lofty electoral goals they have set, doubts remain whether Goran can step up from an opposition force to a new force ready for governance and legislative authority.
The current elections will also be unique for the uncertainty not just before the polls but also long after it. This makes coalitions, compromises and negotiations all the more delicate. It is unlikely that any party will assume enough votes to form a government alone.
The Islamic parties, who attained 10 seats in 2009 are likely to increase on this figure. Although, much of the talk of future governments has resided on the ruling parties and Goran, the seats of the Islamic parties will provide a key angle to the political makeshift of parliament.
The KDP may still attain the most votes with a core support base in Duhok and Erbil and with their dominant mark on the political, economic and strategic map of Kurdistan, but it will need to work with the PUK or Goran in forming a new government.
Due to wider spread of seats, even a coalition between the PUK, Goran and other opposition forces to form a new cabinet cannot be discounted.
Without the figurehead of their historic leader, Jalal Talabani, and the safety net of the KDP, the PUK is most exposed and the elections may well prove a turning point for the party.
When the number of seats is more balanced and distributed more tightly, this makes future coalitions more fragile and may lead to political instability. The idea of a government that includes all parties makes sense on paper but will be difficult to maintain in reality. The relationship between Goran and the ruling parties since 2009 has hardly been a rosy affair.
No matter the election outcome, politicians and political parties must not lose perspective of their ultimate duty of serving Kurds and Kurdistan.
Political competiveness, disagreements and tension is fine to a certainty extent, but it must not jeopardise unity or weaken the Kurdish hand in an already volatile region. Kurds have much left to achieve at home and abroad, narrow-minded party interests must not compromise the Kurdish hand at a critical historical juncture for Kurds and the Middle East.