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the biggest loser
shift in kurdish political landscape sees major player relegated

Sangar Jamal
Preliminary results of recent elections in Iraqi Kurdistan suggest that the political landscape has shifted – the second most powerful party in the region is now only third. It has been replaced by the…
26.09.2013  |  Sulaymaniyah
The absence of the PUK\'s leader, Jalal Talabani, has certainly had an effect on election results.
The absence of the PUK\'s leader, Jalal Talabani, has certainly had an effect on election results.

Elections were held in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan on Sept. 21 and although no official results have been announced as yet, current counts indicate that one of the region’s major political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, looks to have won around 17 to 19 seats in the 111 seat local Parliament.

Up until recently the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, has been one of the two dominant political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, sharing power with the region’s other major player, the Kurdistan Democratic Party or KDP. And it is true that since it was founded in 1975, the PUK has suffered many setbacks. But these last elections have seen the party demoted to third place in terms of political support in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Other estimated results suggest that the KDP has won about 36 seats and the Change movement, up until recently the region’s biggest opposition party, has won around 24. These results don’t include any special votes – which includes the armed forces, prisoners in jails and hospital patients – which should total up to about 8 seats; it’s expected that the KDP will win all, or most, of these.

Even though the results are not official, the PUK’s leadership is already in shock: the results mean that the party got 200,000 fewer votes compared to the last elections in 2009.

Throughout most of its history, the PUK has won slightly less votes than the KDP - usually around 40 percent of the electorate. In 2005, the PUK competed together with the KDP and the partnership garnered almost 90 percent of total votes. In 2007, the partnership didn’t do as well, mainly because of the Change movement, a party which was formed out of members who broke away from the PUK. But again the PUK was second, doing only slightly less well than the KDP.

However during the most recent round of voting, which saw an estimated 2 million cast their ballots in the region, it seems that the PUK lost around 10 seats. And this makes them the biggest loser by far in these elections.

The PUK have already admitted to the decline in popularity. “We can’t deny it,” Farid Asesrd, a leading member of the PUK, told NIQASH. “There have been short comings in the PUK’s policies over the past few years. There’s no doubt. If the PUK wants to overcome this crisis it needs to identify those mistakes and it needs a new and more realistic policy.”

Other senior party members came up with a variety of different reasons for the PUK’s loss. Many said the obvious: it had to do with the lack of presence of the party’s head, Jalal Talabani. The senior Iraqi politician has been in Germany for several months after suffering a serious stroke and the date of his return has remained unclear for just as long. While his doctors say his health is improving, any potential visitors have been refused access.

Local political analysts have their own explanations for the PUK’s demise. “The PUK used to have an ideology, a program and political slogans with which to mobilize their supporters,” says Asos Hardy, a writer and newspaper publisher. “But now they feel that the party has abandoned them, as it ruled jointly with the KDP.”

The PUK has suffered the same fate as any minority party that goes into a coalition with a more powerful partner.

One of those issues where PUK supporters felt abandoned was the extension of the region’s presidency by another term, suggests Susan Shihab, an MP for PUK, on her Facebook page.

Massoud Barzani, who heads the KDP, is the region’s President but his term was supposed to end this year. Despite protests from the opposition and PUK members like Shihab, legislative loopholes will allow Barzani to complete another three year term.

In fact, many say that the PUK’s acquiescence on this topic and the Change movement’s loud protests about it are part of the reason that one party did badly and the other so well.

Still, although the PUK has not done well in these elections, many say the party will still have plenty of influence on political events in Iraqi Kurdistan in the near future. For one thing, the KDP have already suggested that the two parties continue to partner to rule the region together.

“According to this unofficial result, the PUK won’t have as many seats in parliament but it will still have an impact on politics,” Hardy comments. “And if it learns its lessons now, it will be able to rise again in the future.”