Nostalgic politics: A street vendor in Iraqi Kurdistan holds pictures of the leaders of the PUK and KDP. (photo: سفين حميد)
It was a strange place to launch an election campaign – but Shamal Namiq, a candidate from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, had good reason for starting his electioneering by the grave of Jalal Talabani, the late head of his own party.
“Now that I am in his presence, I pledge to Mam Jalal [a nickname for Talabani] and on the blood of all our martyrs, I shall be loyal and I shall defend the constitution and the rights of the people of Kurdistan,” Namiq said in a video that was later posted to Facebook.
It was not a crass thing to do, Namiq insisted when questioned by NIQASH as to his intentions. “I wanted to remind voters of Mam Jalal’s name and that we are working for them, in his spirit, so that we can secure our future in Baghdad,” he explained.
The old faces simply have more impact than unknown politicians with unclear policies.
This election season, it is not unusual for political wannabes in Iraqi Kurdistan to use the imagery of deceased leaders and hark back to old glories.
In fact, it feels as though there is more of this tactic around than in previous elections. As well as pictures of Talabani, candidates are also using pictures of Nawshirwan Mustafa, the leader of the oppositional Change movement who recently passed away.
At the other major political party in Iraqi Kurdistan – the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP - there are pictures of the current leader’s father, Mustafa Barzani, alongside that of his son, Massoud.
Each of the parties has a good explanation for their tactics.
“Mam Jalal is the author of the PUK’s policies,” Qadir Hama Jan, the member of the PUK overseeing elections in Sulaymaniyah. “He left us a program to follow. So it is our right to use his name. It’s just normal and it is done all over the world. All political parties remind their voters of the charismatic leaders from the past.”
The PUK has also named their electoral list the Mam List.
“Our rivals thought that with the death of Nawshirwan Mustafa that his approach might also die, or that we would deviate from our path,” says Shorsh Haji, the spokesperson for the Change movement. “But that’s why we keep on mentioning his name. It proves that we are still taking the same path and that it will always be our guiding principle.”
“Just mentioning the name Barzani is enough to bring voters out,” suggests Ali Hussein, a spokesperson for the KDP. “And it’s just natural to do this because the list and the party belong with the Barzani name.”
The KDP has also called their list after their leadership, naming it the Barzani List.
This is despite the fact that this is the first set of elections that Massoud Barzani, former president of the semi-autonomous northern region and party leader, is not competing in – he resigned from his post after the ill-fated referendum on Kurdish independence.
“But his status is still high,” Hussein insists. “When we mention his name, it has a lot of impact.”
There’s no doubt that the older political leaders are still very important to the Iraqi Kurdish voters.
“Voters in the Iraqi Kurdish region tend not to vote according to the policies or platforms of the individual parties,” suggests Hokaw Jato, the head of the Shams Network, which monitors elections here. “Often the platforms and programmes are not very clearly outlined, or else they are very similar to other parties’.”
Jato believes that parties themselves have told the candidates to use the leaders’ symbolism. The old faces simply have more impact than unknown politicians with unclear policies, he says.
Additionally there has also been a lot of talk about how local politicians plan to bring back “Iraqi Kurdish rights”. This is mainly due to the referendum on independence. After this, the Iraqi government pushed back against Kurdish authorities, forcing them to cede territory, funding and certain provincial rights. Almost all of the parties competing in these elections say they will resolve those issues in one way or another, although none is clear on the mechanisms that can be used to achieve this.
Hassan Jihad, a Kurdish politician who once sat on the parliamentary security and defence committee in Baghdad, says that the candidates and the parties seem to avoid mentioning details. All of these issues are present in most of the parties’ manifestoes, he points out, “and means and solutions should be presented to the voters.”
Instead though, most candidates seem to prefer to present a nostalgic picture of past Kurdish glories, even if that has become less relevant in real life in northern Iraq.