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Broken Promises:
What Have Kurdish Politicians Done For Voters Lately?

Sarchin Salih
As elections near again, Iraqi Kurdish voters are assessing what politicians promised during the last ballot and what they delivered - and whether that even matters in Iraqi Kurdistan.
22.03.2018  |  Sulaymaniyah
Broken promises? Kurds pray at a mosque. (photo: Getty / Sabah Arrar)
Broken promises? Kurds pray at a mosque. (photo: Getty / Sabah Arrar)

In September 2013, almost three-quarters of all of those eligible to vote in the Iraqi Kurdish regional elections cast their ballots. That is an excellent turn out for the voting age population, especially when compared to other countries like the US and the UK.

We won’t make promises to voters if we cannot even begin to implement them.

Many of the voters in the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan cast their ballots according to their traditional loyalties – that is, they voted for the leading political party in their area because that party had always been influential there. However there is no doubt that some voters also paid attention to, and may even have been swayed by, the electoral promises that the Iraqi Kurdish politicians made.

As elections approach again in Iraqi Kurdistan – The Iraqi federal elections in May and regional parliamentary elections a few months later, although the date has yet to be set for the latter - locals find themselves living in worse conditions than they were the year before. Who is to blame? Perhaps it is worth looking at the major promises made by Kurdish political parties and to ask if they were kept - and if not, then why not. 

Kurdistan Democratic Party

Among the promises made:

* Allocating the revenues from natural resources to citizens.

* Protecting freedom of expression.

* Implementing Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution to finally come to a decision on the so-called disputed territories, these being areas that the Kurds believe belong to their semi-autonomous region but which the Iraqi government says belong to Iraq proper.

* Building a railway line between major Kurdish cities.

After 2013 elections, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, had 38 seats and was once again the dominant force in the Kurdish parliament. Despite this, it was not able to keep its promises.

“Before elections parties always run campaigns,” says Fadhil Basharati, a senior member of the KDP. "And we did this too,” he admits. But it does not mean that all campaign promises can be achieved, he adds. 

However, as Basharati also points out, when his party made those promises the whole of the Iraqi Kurdish region was in a different way. “The region was in a good financial position and the promises made were related to that period,” he told NIQASH. “We could not fulfil those promises because the circumstances were beyond the control of the political parties or the Iraqi Kurdish government.”

 

Patriotic Union of Kurdistan

Among the promises made:

* Holding all elections on time.

* Turning the region’s armed forces into a united military.

* Providing all citizens with affordable housing.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, eventually won 18 seats in the Kurdish parliament making them the third most popular party after the KDP and the Change movement. However in realistic terms, they are often considered the second most powerful party after the KDP because of the fact they have military means at their disposal and the Change movement does not.

“The most important reasons behind the non-fulfilment of promises were the financial and political situations that developed in Iraqi Kurdistan after the elections,” explains Latif Sheikh Omer, a senior member of the PUK. “The region’s own political system also prevented promises being kept,” he says, referring to the breakdown in parliamentary proceedings for over a year.

 

The Change movement

Among the promises made:

* Increased independence for legislative and judicial authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan.

* Abolition of laws that grant immunity to military officials and politicians.

* Expansions of the private sector in the economy.

* Increase in pensions.

* Allocating oil revenues to a new fund set up as a kind of trust for future Kurdish generations.

The Change movement, a breakaway party from the PUK that was founded on an anti-corruption platform, has mostly been in opposition and is often critical of the established parties.

Nonetheless during these elections, it became the second most popular party in the region with 24 seats.  

After starting off with a kind of broad-based coalition government that included almost every large Kurdish party, the power-sharing agreement fell apart and the Change movement was, firstly, excluded from the government, and then, announced its own withdrawal from government. This has meant it has been too difficult to achieve anything that was promised, party members say.

 “Despite a willingness to compromise we were simply not able to fulfil our promises,” Ismail Namiq, a senior member of the Change movement, told NIQASH. “The ones who are responsible for this failure are those who prevented us from working.”

 

The Kurdistan Islamic Union

Among the promises made:

* Strengthen the parliamentary system, as opposed to the executive (and president).

* Move Kurdish diplomacy into local institutions.

* Make being part of Iraq optional.

* Deepen the Islamic religion’s place in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Kurdistan Islamic Union is one of three political parties n Iraqi Kurdistan that bases its policies on religion; it won ten seats in the 2013 elections.

It too was involved in the broad-based power sharing government but it too eventually withdrew – even though it was the last party to give up on the idea.

“The parliamentary struggle in Iraqi Kurdistan does not provide the right environment for us to fulfil our promises,” Sherko Jawdat, a senior  member of the party, argues. “The reality of regional politics here means that it is difficult to talk about reform, let alone make it happen.”

 

The Islamic Group of Kurdistan 

Among the promises made:

* Fighting corruption, protecting  human rights.

Improving basic state services.

* Improve living conditions for Iraqi Kurdish military.

The fifth-most popular party in Iraqi Kurdistan managed to get six seats in the Kurdish parliament in 2013. But it too withdrew from the government at the same time as the Change movement.

“We went into the government in order to keep our promises,” Salim Koye, a senior member of the party, explains. “The forces in power promised us they would assist with reforms. But they abandoned their own promises under various pretexts and they have also stopped us from achieving anything. That is why we withdrew from the government.”

 

 

Needless to say, all of this has resulted in a fairly depressing political landscape. Nonetheless local political parties must campaign for something. Currently the major policy promises don’t have a lot to do with the anti-corruption, pro-transparency, reformer-friendly pledges of 2013. The most important thing that all the parties want to be held responsible for is the full payment of salaries to anybody employed by the local government. This has been an ongoing problem and one that has caused an increasing number of popular protests.

Additionally the inability to fulfil any of the promises made in 2013 is making some politicians more cautious.

“We won’t make promises to voters if we cannot even begin to implement them,” insists Ribawar Karim Mahmoud, a professor of political science and the spokesperson for a new party formed last year, the Coalition for Democracy and Justice. “We also want voters to judge us on how we keep our promises, or not.”

Indeed, if that happened, it might be a step forward for Iraqi Kurdistan’s troubled democracy. As Aram Jamal, manager of the Kurdish Institute for Elections, an independent organisation for monitoring elections in the region, has noted before, “the way a lot of the region’s citizens vote, is not based on whether politicians kept their promises or implemented policies. It is based on partisanship and political influence on groups of people here.” 

Big promises and election propaganda are forgotten all too quickly, observers say, and nobody is held to account.

“People here don’t remember promises made,” suggests Kamran Mantak, a professor of political science at Erbil's Salahaddin University. “A lot of people who vote for a certain party don’t even understand the party’s platform or programme. Which is why whether they actually do what they said they would does not matter to many voters.”

And Mantak doesn’t hold out much hope that this will change in the near future. Although there are new alliances and even one major new party, Mantak says they are still part of the same old Kurdish political culture. “When it comes to issues that are sensitive, they will take the same positions as the old parties,” is his pessimistic prediction. 

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