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Bring It On, Haters:
In Northern Iraq, Election Campaigning Takes A Divisive Turn

Honar Hama Rasheed
In the past, there were parades and parties. But this month, in Iraqi Kurdistan, election campaigning has been all about insults, accusations and attack ads. Social media is one of the reasons why.
26.04.2018  |  Sulaymaniyah
There are political flags on the streets but the Kurdish parties are not exactly celebrating. (photo: حمه سور )
There are political flags on the streets but the Kurdish parties are not exactly celebrating. (photo: حمه سور )

Forget about campaigning on the basis of a political manifesto, the strengths of your policies and ideas or a united vision of the future. In Iraqi Kurdistan most of the campaigning for the upcoming federal elections has been all about criticism of one’s opponents.

Almost all of the political parties trying to get elected in the semi-autonomous, northern region have focused more on what’s wrong with the others, rather than what is right about them. Old grudges have been brought up, new and hateful campaigns launched and plenty of false reports and so-called “fake news” has been posted on Kurdish-language social media. Attack ads are the standard. Some community leaders fear that the language being used and messages being sent are so aggressive, that eventually violence may result.

“From what we have seen in election campaigning over the past few days we would say that these violent messages are going to have a detrimental impact on the relationships between political parties after the elections as well,” says Ata Sheikh Hassan, a spokesperson for one of the region’s largest parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, in the city of Sulaymaniyah. “All parties should work through their own channels to calm things down. There are risks that if things go on like this, we will see clashes between the different security forces.”

We are critical of our competitors on political grounds. And I would actually think it was strange if this did not happen.

There’s another big difference to this year’s campaigning and that is the way locals are using social media. Previously a lot of campaigning, postering and speechifying went on, on the streets and in town squares. There would be motorcades and marches as well as special events and parties. But that has changed this year.

 Zmanko Jalal, a senior member of another well-supported Iraqi Kurdish party, the Change movement, thinks that part of the reason is economic. Due to the financial crisis that has prevailed for months now in Iraqi Kurdistan, a lot of people are in dire straits and not in the mood for celebratory marches and parades.

“Unlike in previous years, there is a lack of enthusiasm about elections,” Jalal notes. “Different parties are not relying as much on street side campaigning.” Additionally he believes that local political parties are certain they will find more success with voters online. “There were not as many users of social media previously,” he explains.

And that is a problem when it comes to trying to enforce good standards or even the rules around electioneering. Campaigning on social media is almost impossible for the election authorities to constrain or regulate.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s female candidates appear to have been a particular target of bad will online. A video showing Jwan Ihsan, who heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK’s campaign in Sulaymaniyah, apparently unaware that the Iraqi government had abolished a certain ministry, was posted on social media and was widely shared. The same thing happened to Heshu Rebwar Ali, a senior female member of the KDP. Her inability to answer a certain question was criticized on social media and then videos and pictures from Rebwar Ali’s  stolen mobile phone were posted online.

 

Campaigning on Kurdish streets. Photo: Hama Sur

 

Ihsan told NIQASH she believes the social media campaign against her was an organized one, “launched by certain parties who see me as a major rival in the elections,” she says.

Yusuf Mohammed, the head of the Change movement, believes he’s also been targeted on social media. He was the victim of just one of many fabricated reports posted on Kurdish-language Facebook platforms.

“This kind of disinformation campaign brings shame to the democratic process in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Mohammed told NIQASH. He notes that these kinds of falsified pictures are being used in an organized way as political enemies pay for some of the region’s most popular Facebook pages to put out reports that make other politicians look bad.

Local observers suggest that one of the newest political parties competing in this year’s elections, New Generation, is responsible for some of the heated campaigning. While other Iraqi Kurdish political parties signed the UN-supervised Electoral Charter of Honour, the New Generation was the only party to decline.

However the New Generation’s spokesperson, Rabun Marouf, denies any wrong doing, insisting that their campaigning was completely normal.

“We are critical of our competitors on political grounds,” he told NIQASH. “And I would actually think it was strange if this did not happen.”

The fog of propaganda has already dominated the run up to this moment. Unfortunately this indicates that election campaigning is going to be very difficult.

The New Generation plans to continue doing this, Marouf insisted: “We want to make the citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan aware of how existing political parties have acted against their interests for over 27 years.”

The Change movement, known for its opposition to the parties in power, has also run a  highly critical campaign – in particular, they have continued in their tradition of complaining about the behaviour of the KDP.

Party leader Mohammed told NIQASH that his party wants to highlight the shortcomings of the authorities through the media, “to show that these people shouldn’t be in charge of our government,” he explained.

Locals have expressed concern about this style of campaigning but, as Rizkar Haji Hama, a senior, local member of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, says it is impossible to control campaign content, especially on social media.

“We know about the violent and divisive campaigns launched by the parties against one another on social networks,” Hama told NIQASH. “Measures should be taken to prevent this but IHEC cannot do anything because nobody can be held responsible for the online content and we cannot reach the owners of the various pages to punish them.”

As of this week, IHEC has received about ten complaints about divisive campaigning and Hama says they will be investigating these further, although he isn’t sure that anything much will come of that.

Some locals have also tried to improve the situation independently of authorities. On the day election campaigning could legally begin, a group of civil society activists and journalists issued a statement calling upon local political parties to refrain from defaming opponents, using coarse language or deliberately exacerbating tensions.

“Today we enter the period of election campaigning,” their statement said. “The fog of propaganda has already dominated the run up to this moment. Unfortunately this indicates that election campaigning is going to be very difficult, highly competitive and will introduce tensions.” Unfortunately it seems they were absolutely correct in their predictions.

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