A Kurdish woman casts her ballot in Erbil, September 30, 2018. Photo: Safin Hamed / AFP
When the Kurdistan Region held its first parliamentary election in 1992, voters were enthusiastic to see what a Kurdish government could offer them after decades of oppression by successive Iraqi regimes.
Full of hopes and expectations, 87 percent of voters turned out to choose between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). However, when the parliamentary seats were divided equally between both parties, known as the fifty-by-fifty system, people soon became disillusioned.
Both parties governed the Region under this system until the outbreak of civil war in 1994. There wasn’t to be another parliamentary election until 2005, following the US invasion of Iraq.
In 2005, 75 percent of voters turned out – a fairly typical figure by international standards. This time the KDP and PUK joined forces, gaining 104 of the 111 seats. At the time, the only opposition was the Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal).
The emergence of the Change Movement (Gorran) in the 2009 election shook things up – but did not increase the level of turnout. Of the 74 percent who cast their ballot, some 23.75 percent voted for Gorran.
The movement’s shock result was a slap in the face for both ruling parties, but especially for the PUK, as Gorran was a split from its own ranks. In the 2013 election, Gorran managed to push the PUK into third place.
On Sunday, turnout fell again to 58 percent. Although a better showing compared to the measly 44.52 percent who turned out for Iraq’s May 12 election, it was still the lowest in the Region’s history.
Bilal Wahab, a Kurdish political analyst from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes voting fatigue, disillusionment with the political and democratic process, last minute measures taken by the election commission, and the expectation of fraud were among the main reasons for the low turnout.
“The KRG regional election was the third time that citizens of Kurdistan were called upon to go to the polls within the past year, following the referendum last September and Iraq’s elections in May. The first did not offer the public much: the KRG lost territory, resources, and some of its hard-earned international support after the referendum,” Wahab told Rudaw English.
“Iraqi elections, on the other hand, are yet to translate into any meaningful gains for the KRG. In fact, it deepened and accentuated the political fracture within the Kurdish house. Hence, voting does not seem to be doing much good in the eyes of the public,” he added.
The main source of power and legitimacy in the Region, he says, remain “guns and money” – not votes.
Shoresh Haji, a member of Gorran’s executive body, told the movement’s KNN TV channel on election night that “disappointment with the situation created by both the PUK and KDP” together with “concern about the political process” was the cause of the low turnout.
Ali Hama Salih, head of Gorran’s list in Sunday’s election, said the “rigging” conducted in the May 12 Iraqi election had also put off voters.
“Due to considerable rigging in the Kurdistan Region on May 12, people become somehow disappointed about the fact that election could bring change. This is one of the main factors,” Salih told Rudaw English.
Who is to blame?
Rewaz Fayeq, a former PUK member of parliament, accuses the opposition parties of making “big promises” but failing to keep them, leaving voters disillusioned with politics. Gorran’s Saleh meanwhile blames the dishonesty of the elite.
Arguably, both the traditional parties and the opposition are responsible for the growing disillusionment.
On the one hand, the ruling KDP and PUK created a political atmosphere in which people lost faith in democratic processes. Regular allegations of fraud and a precession of the same old faces in government left voters feeling their ballot would do little to change the status quo.
On the other hand, the opposition has held spectacular demonstrations and energized the youth, only to achieve little when actually given a place in government.
Can falling turnouts be reversed?
Wahab says stronger institutions and the rule of law are needed to regain voters’ faith in elections.
“It is up to the ruling parties to decide whether they want to share power, not merely offer positions to the opposition. This would be done through stronger institutions and rule of law. Why doesn’t the KRG have a constitution? Why isn’t the Peshmerga accountable to the KRG instead of the parties?”
“In their rivalry and zero-sum approaches to politics and governance, the parties are losing their own public. I think we need a reconciliation between parties and the public which feels let down.”
Gorran’s Saleh says a “concrete plan” will help return the trust of voters.
“There should be a concrete plan by the [election] commission to reject the rigging. If successful, it can return the trust of voters and the next session of the parliament will be active.”
The PUK’s Fayeq believes if new MPs work actively in the coming four years and implement the promises they made on the campaign trail, “a sort of hope” may be returned to the people.