Supporters of the Change movement in Iraqi Kurdistan. (photo: Hama Sur)
In the recent Iraqi federal elections, held May 12, opposition parties in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan did not fare as well as many expected while the parties that have traditionally dominated here – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP - did better than expected.
Many predicted bigger losses for them but the Sulaymaniyah-based PUK only lost three seats and the KDP maintained the 25 they had before. Meanwhile the Iraqi Kurdish opposition parties did far worse than expected. The last polls before the election predicted eight seats for the new Coalition for Democracy and Justice, or CDJ, and the Change movement was expected to maintain its nine seats. But on May 12, the CDJ received only two and the Change movement, five.
Voters who once voted outside of the mainstream need to feel confident their vote means something.
Previously there was really only one viable opposition party here: the Change movement. So having several more opposition parties in Iraqi Kurdistan this election is a positive development. But the negative aspect is that votes have been divided between them, and the PUK and KDP have been able to play them off against each other. So while the Change movement came close in 2013, no single opposition party now has enough seats in the Iraqi Kurdish parliament to challenge the power of the PUK and KDP.
For example, in the Iraqi Kurdish provinces of Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Dohuk, the KDP and PUK received 723,830 and 372,744 votes respectively, in this election. The votes of the main opposition and Islamist parties are not even close. The Change movement received 193,358 and the CDJ got 123,184. Two of the Islamic parties got 190,379. Altogether that totals 506,921. This equals more than the PUK and comes closer to the KDP.
But one must also consider that 55 percent of Kurdish voters did not even go to the polls and low voter turnout helped the mainstream parties. The KDP and the PUK use various strategies - including money, intimidation, job offers and nationalism - to “get out the vote”. The opposition must figure out how to get those disillusioned voters back to the polls, at a time when most say they will never vote again because their votes were stolen.
The people of Kurdistan are fed up with promises made and never fulfilled. In past elections, opposition parties could mobilize voters. But this election, many locals said that even though they desired drastic change, they did not believe that it would ever happen, and they felt their votes didn’t matter. After over two decades, they still see the KDP and PUK in control of almost every sector.
This is one reason why the four opposition parties should put their problems with each other aside. Of course, they have their differences. Each party may have a specific project, but in general their goals are similar.
The coalition of opposition parties will not include another new party, the New Generation, led by Shaswar Abdul Wahid. The leader, a local businessman, has been criticised as a charlatan and during campaigning, New Generation irrevocably alienated the other opposition parties with attacks on them.
In the past, opposition parties could not, or did not, form a coalition. The Change movement was the only dominant opposition party. Neither the CDJ nor New Generation existed. The Kurdish Islamist parties did not have a strong relationship with the Change movement and one of them, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, was particularly distant from the Change movement.
However now, Barham Salih, formerly a senior member of the PUK has formed the CDJ. The Change movement does not have the seats that it had before and is struggling after the loss of its charismatic leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa.
So the way forward is the formation of an oppositional coalition – and for various reasons: Because the opposition vote has been split, because voters who once voted outside of the mainstream need to feel confident their vote means something, and because, when it comes to bringing attention to issues such as the accusations of electoral fraud, the opposition parties are stronger if they do this together.
Since the election, the four opposition parties have already been working together, especially in their rejection of election results. Their relationship since the election is a clear indicator that it really is possible that they will form a coalition for the Kurdish regional elections in September.
Of course, the two ruling parties will seek to break down their coalition after its formation but they should not allow this. For instance, recently the Kurdistan Islamic Union, or KIU, seems to have built a strong relationship with the three other parties due to the electoral fraud accusations. But the Change movement still has issues with the KIU, because the KIU has had very good relations with KDP and “betrayed” the Change movement in past years by not voting with the Change movement when it came to trying to take away power from the office of the Iraqi Kurdish Presidency; the latter has been held by KDP leader Massoud Barzani for years now.
I believe such a coalition really is important in Iraqi Kurdistan. It will give people faith in democratic change once again. In the past, the Kurdish people believed they could replace the ruling parties by voting them out. But thousands have lost faith in democracy here. An opposition coalition could restore that faith. And I believe that if the September regional election in Iraqi Kurdistan is free, fair, and credible, a coalition of oppositional parties has the potential to beat the KDP.
Mohamed Jasm Bakr is a student at the American University of Iraq in Sulaymaniyah.