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Kurdistan: The Pressing Need for Free and Fair Regional Elections

After many delays, Iraq’s Kurdistan Region is scheduled to hold internal elections in June. But with one major party boycotting the polls, their success hangs in the balance.

Power in flux: Erbil, capital of Iraq's Kurdistan province and the location of the Kurdistan Regional Government

Iraq’s Kurdistan Region last held internal elections to its self-governing political institutions in September 2018. New elections to the Kurdistan Parliament were originally scheduled for October 2022, but internal tensions caused repeated postponements. The polls are now planned for 10 June. As a result of the knock-on effects caused by the earlier delays, they will be administered by Iraq’s federal government. One of the two ruling parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – plans to boycott the election as a protest against what it sees as unfair rules imposed by Baghdad. Observers already expected low turnout amid widespread voter dissatisfaction, but it could hit record lows given these unprecedented circumstances.

The democratic legitimacy of political institutions in the Kurdistan Region is at stake. The Kurdistan Parliament is no longer sitting, and the current Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) cabinet is functioning well beyond the time it would ordinarily be in office. Elections are necessary to renew the mandate of these institutions. Yet, there are urgent questions about whether the election process will be free and fair given the outsized ability of the ruling parties to prevent participation, influence voter behaviour, and subsequently control the institutions of government. What sort of democratic legitimacy such an election would confer is, therefore, an open question.

This piece will seek to address several topics. First, does legitimacy in the Kurdistan Region actually come from elections, or does it originate from other sources? Second, will the elections in June confer legitimacy in the eyes of voters, political parties, and other stakeholders? Third, what will this mean for the future of the Kurdistan Region?

Ultimately, failing to hold an election is worse than having an imperfect one because it makes it easier to foreclose the possibility of future, better elections. The Kurdistan Region’s parties should recommit to an inclusive, democratic process, including but not limited to elections. Outside players like the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq and foreign governments should be unwilling to accept anything less.

In a democracy, political legitimacy ideally comes from the people. Usually, this is conferred through free and regular votes on candidates and issues under conditions that allow for fair competition. The resulting institutions are able to accommodate transfers of power when they occur. However, the exact mechanisms for these processes differ from place to place due to political and historical development.

The Kurdistan Region emerged in 1991 after a long struggle against the central government in Baghdad and, at that particular time, the Ba’athist dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Just three years earlier, the Ba’athists had perpetrated the genocidal Anfal campaign. Creating self-governing Kurdish institutions was not a political science experiment to provide authentic representation for a minority group, but a necessary measure for survival and protection. The continued need for such a bulwark is evident amid recent efforts by Baghdad to rebalance power within Iraq’s federal system.

These institutions were formed largely through a partnership between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which had fought Baghdad and each other for decades. As a result of this development path, the ruling parties have always been stronger than the state. To this day, party elites largely dictate governmental affairs through a variety of formal and informal mechanisms, elections being just one. This reflects – and validates – their military and administrative control over roughly half of the Kurdistan Region each. Even when the Gorran Movement beat the PUK in both the 2013 parliamentary election and the 2014 provincial election in Sulaymaniyah, the latter did not fully relinquish control over state institutions in a transfer of power. The imbalance between party and state complicates efforts to establish the democratic legitimacy of institutions and processes.

Elections in the Kurdistan Region are more political theatre than democratic substance, tending to validate pre-existing power dynamics rather than challenging them

A second important aspect of the Kurdistan Region’s political and historical development is the role played by international actors. This influence is evident from the no-fly zone that operated following the Gulf War, the 1998 Washington Agreement that ended the Kurdish civil war, the removal of Saddam Hussein, and the war against Islamic State. During each of these interventions, efforts were made to strengthen Kurdish political institutions. When international attention waned, the two ruling parties increased their influence over the state. As a consequence, the functionality of the KRG declined.

The parties’ dependence on strong ties with the international community is evident in their media and propaganda. Foreign diplomats like the UK’s current consul general are given space in party-connected outlets to praise the Kurdistan Region. Routine meetings are turned into complex protocol events designed to stress the importance of officials from the Kurdish parties. A common refrain among opposition groups and disgruntled voters is that KDP and PUK officials are more responsive to international demands than the interests of Kurdish citizens.

Increasingly, state bodies in Baghdad also wield significant influence over political affairs in the Kurdistan Region. Rulings by the Federal Supreme Court ended the latest term of the Kurdistan Parliament, eliminated the seats reserved for ethnic and religious minorities, and gave administrative control over elections to the federal electoral commission. The KDP in particular has complained bitterly about these decisions. While the party’s own self-interest clearly drives its objections, there is nevertheless no substantive mechanism for the Kurdish public to hold the federal court accountable.

Control of state institutions by the ruling parties, the role of the international community, and interference from the federal state undercut notions that the KRG’s institutions derive their legitimacy from a popular mandate. As a result, elections in the Kurdistan Region are more political theatre than democratic substance. They tend to validate pre-existing power dynamics rather than challenging them. The initial emergence of Gorran in 2009 sought to change this paradigm, but the party was rapidly co-opted into the system. This is the dynamic that will confront voters in several weeks when they head to the polls.

Given this state of affairs, establishing democratic legitimacy in the Kurdistan Region is baseline difficult. The specific circumstances of the 10 June election exacerbate efforts to do so in the eyes of voters, parties and other stakeholders.

Past elections in the Kurdistan Region have been dogged by allegations of fraud perpetrated by the KDP and the PUK, which at the time controlled the regional electoral commission. The ruling parties allegedly used their patronage networks to force public servants to vote for whichever party was in control of their workplace or governorate. Without irony, each has accused the other of using this to their respective advantage. The opposition has also claimed that the KDP and the PUK misused voter cards and that members of the partisan-affiliated security forces voted more than once. There is far less international observation of regional elections than elections for the parliament in Baghdad, which does not aid transparency.

Dissatisfaction with governance in the Kurdistan Region and mistrust of the electoral process have resulted in progressively lower turnout. In the 2013 regional elections, 76% of voters in Duhok and 73% in Sulaymaniyah cast ballots, but this slid to 54% and 37% respectively in the 2021 federal parliamentary election, which was the last one held in the Kurdistan Region. Observers expect that turnout will continue to decline – a factor that counts against democratic legitimacy. Developments over the past few weeks have made this even more likely.

Both ruling parties enjoy massive structural advantages against the other parties in terms of campaign resources, media ownership, and the security forces

Elections for the Kurdistan Parliament were originally scheduled to occur on 1 October 2022. Disagreements between the KDP and the PUK over how the elections should be held caused an initial delay. Since then, multiple court cases related to an attempt to extend the Kurdistan Parliament’s mandate and the constitutionality of reserved minority seats have forced additional postponements. Previous elections were run by the Kurdistan Region’s own election commission – which was dominated by representatives of the KDP and the PUK – but the upcoming polls will be administered by the federal government.

The KDP has won the most votes in every election in the Kurdistan Region since 2005, but it will boycott the upcoming polls. In a statement, the party said that the Federal Supreme Court’s recent rulings are politicised and will result in ‘unconstitutional and undemocratic elections’. It particularly objected to the elimination of the seats reserved for religious and ethnic minorities, which critics argued were de facto controlled by the KDP. No other major Kurdish parties support the boycott, and they intend to go forward with the elections.

The KDP leadership fears that it will lose seats under these circumstances – it would say unfairly – and will be forced into working with the PUK to form a government, which it had hoped to avoid. The party’s decision is unprecedented, and it is hard to predict what the consequences will be for the future of the Kurdistan Region. In a democracy, there would be some kind of accountability for not participating in an election, but the KDP’s grip over the security forces in Erbil and Duhok governorates means that it will remain in power in those areas.

Even if the KDP had chosen to participate in the election, it is hard to see how the polls would have been free and fair enough to enhance the democratic legitimacy of Kurdish self-governing institutions. The biometric voting machines currently in use in Iraq address methods of fraud used in past elections, but the pressure that the KDP and the PUK exert on voters through social and patronage networks means that voting is not always entirely free. Moreover, both ruling parties enjoy massive structural advantages against the other parties in terms of campaign resources, media ownership, and the security forces which mean that the elections are definitely not fair. Turnout will likely hit a record low as a result of voter apathy and the KDP’s boycott.

The situation puts the Kurdistan Region’s foreign partners in a difficult position. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for example, pleaded for elections to go forward with all parties participating during a press conference on 5 April. Far more than the KDP and the PUK, Western governments need an election in the Kurdistan Region in order to claim that they are working with a like-minded government that shares their democratic values, as is regularly claimed. This was always a conceit, but it has become an increasingly fragile edifice since 2018. How this election plays out may force difficult choices that have been some time in coming.

At this point, many practical matters are uncertain. Much depends on the KDP’s behaviour. If it prevents campaigning or voting in Erbil and Duhok, it will violate the constitutional rights of Kurdish voters in order to serve its narrow self-interest. If it prevents the next Kurdistan Parliament from sitting in Erbil, it will fundamentally break the KRG. It is vitally important to understand that the KDP’s actions represent a choice that it did not necessarily have to take. The international actors that serve as a source of legitimacy for the KDP and the PUK must weigh in strongly against these anti-democratic impulses.

Regardless of the needs or interests of the KDP, the PUK or the international community, the Kurdish public deserves a government that operates with democratic legitimacy. It is incumbent on all stakeholders to provide credible, free and fair elections now. Failing to do so harms the chances that elections will continue to occur in the future.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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