Kurdish locals proving they voted. (photo: يادكار جلال)
Elections in the northern area of Kirkuk have always been a bit different from elections elsewhere in Iraq. The city of Kirkuk is often described as a flashpoint for all of Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian issues because of its demographic makeup. But in the past, the different sectors of the city’s population used to at least vote together. So there would be a Kurdish vote, a Turkman vote and an Arab vote.
However, since the events of mid-October, which saw control of the city wrested out of Kurdish hands and brought back to Iraqi ones, divisions in all of those formerly-united groups has been growing.
There are fears that the Kurds could lose votes if we don’t unite.
There are close to a million eligible voters in the Kirkuk area, Rizkar Haji Hama, a senior, local member of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, told NIQASH. Candidates will be competing for 12 seats in parliament in Baghdad that are allocated to Kirkuk.
After the events in mid-October that saw the various Iraqi Kurdish political parties in the area trying to blame one another for the fact that they had lost control of Kirkuk, it has been hard for the Kurds to unite and compete together in the elections.
Kirkuk is what is known as a disputed territory – that is, an area that the Iraqi Kurds say belongs to their semi-autonomous region but which Iraq says belongs to the nation proper – and up until mid-October, it had been controlled by the Iraqi Kurdish military.
Six meetings have already been held between the different Kurdish parties represented in Kirkuk but they have not been fruitful, says Asso Mamand, a senior member of one of those parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, responsible for the party's activities in Kirkuk.
“We proposed a project to all of the Kurdish parties that would unify the Kurdish voice in Kirkuk, and that would allow us to campaign in the upcoming elections on one list,” Mamand explained. “But it seems that we are too divided to form a united group in the disputed territories.”
In the past the Kurds have been successful in Kirkuk, winning eight of the 12 available seats – six for the PUK and two for the KDP. Arab politicians won another two and the Turkmans also won two.
An unwelcome sight: Iraqi soldiers in Kirkuk.
“There are fears that the Kurds could lose votes if we don’t unite which is why the PUK, as an influential party responsible for this province, has tried to make a big effort to organize this,” Mamand continued.
The last meeting of Iraqi Kurdish political parties on this topic was held in Erbil on February 7. Present were representatives from the PUK, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, the Change movement, the Islamic parties and several smaller parties including the local socialists. The group was unable to unite, sources say.
There was one achievement though in that the KDP, Iraqi Kurdistan’s most powerful party, was convinced to take part in the elections in Kirkuk. There was much rancour between the PUK and KDP after the events in mid-October, with both parties accusing the other of selling out to the Iraqi government and giving Kirkuk up without a fight.
“We had decided not to participate in elections in Kurdish areas that were not under the control of Kurds because we believe that after October 16, Kirkuk became an occupied territory,” says Khasro Koran, a senior member of the KDP and the official responsible for elections in the party. “But we changed our minds because the fate of those areas is much more important for all Kurds, than our internal party decisions.”
It is not just the Kurds, who won the majority of seats in the last elections in Kirkuk, who are divided. Most of the Turkmans and Arabs here would prefer to see Kirkuk run by the central government. But they cannot unite in one ethnically-harmonious list either.
The Arab deputy governor, Rakan Saeed, called for Arab unity in Kirkuk. But he is a Sunni Muslim politician. And many of the local Arab politicians here have joined either the Shiite Muslim party list headed by the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, or another less sectarian list that has been popular with Sunni politicians, headed by a former prime minister, Ayad Allawi.
The Turkmans also appear divided along sectarian lines. Last week, two Shiite Muslim members of a Turkman bloc walked out of their group in order to form an independent list.
“The purpose of this list is to serve the people of Kirkuk, and not anybody else’s election propaganda,” says Najat Hussein, a Turkman politician who sits on the provincial council.
“All the Turkman parties should have joined one list to make sure that they got the highest number of votes they could,” complains Mohammed Jassim, the head of a larger Turkman party. “But conflicts prevented the formation of such a list.”