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What’s The Point?
Iraqi Kurdistan’s Opposition Parties Must Pass Test Of Regional Elections

Honar Hama Rasheed
Iraqi Kurdistan’s opposition parties did not do as well as expected in May’s federal election. September's regional elections are their last chance to prove to disillusioned voters there’s a point to their existence.
25.07.2018  |  Sulaymaniyah
Voters in Iraqi Kurdistan want a second choice - but can anyone provide it? (photo: الموسوعة الحرة )
Voters in Iraqi Kurdistan want a second choice - but can anyone provide it? (photo: الموسوعة الحرة )

Several of Iraqi Kurdistan’s opposition parties have yet to officially accept the results of the country’s federal elections, held May 12 this year. They claim there was electoral fraud and some of the claims could have substance. Others could well be due to low voter turnout. Those claims are now being investigated, not just in Iraqi Kurdistan but elsewhere in Iraq too.

In the meantime Iraqi Kurdistan is gearing up for their regional election. The semi-autonomous northern region acts like a state within a state and has its own parliament, for which it holds regional elections. These are slated to happen in September this year. And, if those accusations of electoral fraud are not specious, the regional elections will be another test of the power of the Iraqi Kurdish opposition – or not.

Right now, the Change movement, the Islamic parties and the relatively new Coalition for Democracy and Justice, don’t have any kind of official, administrative power in Iraqi Kurdistan.

He admits that his party and the other opposition parties had failed in the federal elections.

They did far worse in the federal elections than they had expected to, given widespread dissatisfaction with the ruling political parties and their actions in the recent past. Most of the opposition parties that had competed in the past saw the number of seats they had in parliament in Baghdad halved: For example, the Change movement went from nine seats last time to five this time.

Although they did get some seats, the parties that had not competed before - the Coalition for Democracy and Justice and New Generation – did not do half as well as they expected to either.

And the opposition parties all insist that there was fraud during the federal elections and want a manual recount. However it doesn’t seem at all certain that a manual recount will change much: namely, the region’s two big parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK – got the most votes and will remain in charge.

That is why the upcoming regional elections are so important, says Abubakr Karwani, a senior member of one of the smaller Islamic parties, the Islamic Union. “They will decide our fate,” he told NIQASH.

Karwani admits that his party and the other opposition parties had failed in the federal elections. We all need a new election program, he conceded. “And we must work together.”

One of the reasons he is talking about failure is due to the low voter turnout in the federal elections. It seems that, just as in the rest of Iraq, voters in Iraqi Kurdistan are disillusioned with the democratic process: No matter what they vote, nothing ever seems to change, they say.

Official figures suggest that only around 44.5 percent of eligible voters turned up to vote on election day in Iraq. In Iraqi Kurdistan, the numbers were around the same: 43 percent in Erbil, 50 percent in Sulaymaniyah and 51 percent in Dohuk.

“Political parties need to bridge the gap that exists between them and the citizens,” Karwani says. “If they don’t, then the same thing will happen again and their percentage of the votes will drop once again.”

All of the opposition parties have serious concerns that the same low turnout could impact the Kurdish regional elections too. But at the same time they have not come up with any specific programs to bring Kurdish voters back to the ballot box.

If the opposition parties don’t get it together in these upcoming elections, then there will be a political crisis.

“It’s still too early to talk about it [how to bring voters back to the electoral process],” Balen Ismail, a senior member of the Change movement, says. “We are working on it, urging citizens to vote and achieve a higher turnout.”

 “The reason the opposition parties got so few votes was due to low voter turnout,”  Ribawar Karim Mahmoud, a spokesperson for the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, says. “If this issue is not addressed, then that is going to happen again at the regional election.”

But his party cannot do this alone, Mahmoud argues. “All the parties need to work together on this because it is their future we are talking about,” he noted.

One plan to make voters trust in democracy again was to empower the opposition parties by having them run together as an alliance. But so far, this has not been possible: The parties find it hard to work together.

But we should have done it, Mahmoud says. “It’s the only way to make people trust again and to encourage them to vote, and to confront any attempts at electoral fraud.”

Karwani says that the four largest opposition parties don’t really trust one another and that is why they were unable to form an alliance. But this inability to unite hurt them during the elections, he points out. Of course, he adds, the opposition parties could form some sort of alliance now, after the elections – this way, they could better hold those in power to account and regain the trust of the electorate.

“If the opposition parties don’t get it together in these upcoming elections, then there will be a political crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan for sure,” Karwani concludes. “Because the major parties that have caused so many problems in the region will remain in power and there will be no opposition that the people trust, no second choice. That can only lead to a continuation of the political crisis here.”

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