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Policies Or Ethnicity?
In Baghdad, Kurdish Voters Likely To Ignore Kurdish MPs

Ibrahim Saleh
To run or not to run for election in Baghdad, that is the question for Kurdish politicians. Some MPs say the capital is political suicide for Kurdish candidates while others say there's a secret to winning here.
5.04.2018  |  Baghdad
They may look homogenous here but in Baghdad, the Kurds won't vote based on ethnicity. (photo: ليفي كلانسي :الموسوعة الحرة)
They may look homogenous here but in Baghdad, the Kurds won't vote based on ethnicity. (photo: ليفي كلانسي :الموسوعة الحرة)

The Baghdad colleagues were taking a break in their workplace rest room when the television in there began to broadcast the latest details about the upcoming Iraqi elections. Nayaz Mahdi, 29, was the only Kurd among the staff and the others were curious to hear his thoughts. Would he only vote for Kurdish politicians? Or would he consider voting for an Arab?, they were curious to know.

In answer, Mahdi said a Kurdish word: Yekîtiya. This means something like “unity”, and he indicated by this that he planned to vote for one of the major Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK.

Despite the fact that Baghdad is the capital for all Iraqis, the Kurds haven’t got a seat out of Baghdad for years.

Mahdi explained to his colleagues that he was a member of the PUK and had even worked with their military forces. Having to live in Baghdad did not mean he was intending to abandon this affiliation, Mahdi told the others. “In fact, we here in Baghdad are waiting for the party to send us the list of names of candidates it will support,” Mahdi explained. “After that, we will make up our own minds as to who we vote for.”

One might expect this to be the case with most of the Iraqi Kurdish voters who live in Baghdad. But that would be mistaken. Many of the Kurds living in the capital do not choose a candidate to vote for based on ethnicity. Although their numbers have decreased significantly, it is estimated there are still thousands of Kurds living in Baghdad, which has population of around almost 9 million.

If the Kurds in Baghdad all agreed on who to vote for, they could have an impact within the borders of the province. But they are a more disparate population than one might assume.

There are some Kurdish tribes who chose to settle in Baghdad from the beginning of the 20th century onwards. There are areas in Baghdad, and even whole neighbourhoods, known for their Kurdish inhabitants. Because so many of these Kurds were born in Baghdad and have lived at a distance from the semi-autonomous, northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, some of these feel more Iraqi than Kurdish. They are just as likely to vote for an Arab, Christian or Turkmen politician as they are for a Kurd.

The exception to this are the Feyli Kurds – this is a subgroup of the Kurdish ethnicity, who have long lived in the southern parts of Baghdad, several central and southern provinces and in Iran. They belong mostly to the Shiite sect of Islam and as such, were persecuted in Iraq by the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. As has been reported elsewhere, they have often not felt at home in either Iraq (where the majority are Arabs) or in Iraqi Kurdistan (where the majority are Sunni Muslims).

Perhaps because of that, they tend to vote as more of a block. In the past they have favoured Arab, Shiite Muslim politicians over Kurdish candidates.

As if to reflect how Kurds in Baghdad vote, the politicians they are voting for there are also more diverse. Several senior Iraqi Kurdish politicians left parties they traditionally stood with, and which brought them to their current position, and decided to run with non-Kurdish lists. This includes Ala Talabani, a scion of the Talabani family, the founders of the PUK, as well as Sarwa Abdul Wahid, a senior member of the Change movement in Iraqi Kurdistan, who wanted to run on the list headed by Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi; Wahid was pressured to withdraw from the list again by her own party.

Other Kurdish politicians decided to form one list for Baghdad voters, in the hope that they would automatically draw the Kurds living in Baghdad.

One Kurdish MP who has been in parliament in Baghdad as part of the Kurdish delegation, Majid Shankali, isn’t so sure that is a good idea. For Kurds, deciding to run in Baghdad is more like “political suicide,” he claims.

“There are very few chances for Kurds to do well in Baghdad,” he says. “Despite the fact that Baghdad is the capital for all Iraqis, the Kurds haven’t got a seat out of Baghdad for years. The reason is that the number of Kurds in Baghdad has been decreasing for years and that’s why we never get any momentum here.”

Interestingly enough the Kurds that have tended to be more successful during elections in Baghdad are those who did not use their ethnicity in the competition, or engage it when it came to policy. Rather they’ve been the Kurdish natives of Baghdad, some of whom it would be hard to tell if they were Arab or Kurdish.

The head of the Iraqi Swimming Federation, Sarmad Abdul-Ilah, is one such individual. The would-be-MP speaks unaccented Arabic and he believes that the recognition and popularity he has from his days in competitive swimming will gain him voters. He also believes he is closer to the Baghdad people he wants to serve and that he will also get votes from Arab constituents.   

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