SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — Iraqi Kurdistan's parliamentary elections will be held on Sept. 30. Early voting for the peshmerga and other security services will start Sept. 28.
The election was due to be held last November, but it was postponed by the parliament. The election will bring a new regional government in Kurdistan. In addition to the main two Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, several small parties including Gorran and Kurdistan Islamic Group are participating in the election. The small parties fear large-scale fraud by the current government, which is shared by the two parties.
The Kurdistan Regional Government's election commission announced that six foreign nations will monitor the Kurdistan Region’s parliamentary election through their consulates, but the opposition parties still do not trust the government to hold the election fairly.
The mood is unusually subdued across the region and the start of campaigning was delayed by a week, as some political parties were trying to delay the vote. Campaigning kicked off on Sept. 11 and will continue until Sept. 28, but the shadow of concern over large-scale voter fraud, low turnout and armed conflicts has created a gloomy atmosphere among political parties and local citizens.
Iraqi Kurds, who had enjoyed unprecedented autonomy for years, voted overwhelmingly for independence in the 2017 referendum. The referendum, which was opposed by Baghdad and Iraq’s neighboring countries of Turkey and Iran as well as other Western powers, prompted military and economic retaliation from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad.
The Kurdistan Region's Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, which supervises the vote, reported that 29 political blocs and 773 candidates, including 241 women, will compete over the 111-seat house. The population of voting age — 3,085,461 Iraqi Kurds — can vote in the general polls to elect members of parliament for their region, which gained self-rule in 1991.
The two main parties, the PUK and KDP, are trying hard to maintain and enhance their power.
“We expect to become the second parliamentary bloc, and the second thing is that we expect to win more seats compared to the previous election,” Farid Asasard a member of the PUK’s leadership committee, told Al-Monitor.
Asasard added that not all the Kurdish parties supported delaying the vote, but his party was in favor of it, “partly due to the issue of holding the party’s congress.” It seems that some PUK leaders are afraid that they cannot achieve their goal. The PUK became third in the previous election, after the KDP and Gorran.
“Since the first Kurdistan region parliamentary election in 1992, electoral fraud and vote-rigging have been the main concern of pro-democracy activists and organizations and opposition parties. The KRG has failed to conduct fair and free elections ever since. However, in the recent Iraqi parliamentary election, electoral fraud became clearer as it largely changed the results,” Kamal Chomani, non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for the Middle East Policy, told Al-Monitor.
Since both the KDP and the PUK have their own armed forces known as the peshmerga, there are fears and concerns that they will use these forces to impose their power before and during the elections, including intimidating opposition parties if they reject the upcoming election results due to voter fraud.
“Electoral fraud is not only what is happening on election day, but rather before the election day as the KDP and PUK force the KDP and PUK militia forces, anti-terror forces, the security forces and the police forces to vote for them, threatening people with cutting their salaries if they do not vote for them, distributing cash and using clans and governmental and state institutions to their benefit,” Chomani said.
The leaders of two main parties reject the accusations.
“We are ready to accept defeat peacefully, as when we lost the previous election in 2013,” Asasard said.
In May election, after the main opposition parties of Gorran, the Kurdish Islamic Union, the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ), and the Kurdistan Islamic Group announced they are rejecting the vote, an armed force loyal to PUK stormed the Gorran headquarters, where top officials of the four parties were meeting.
Though Gorran has no organized militia, it does have many armed followers and can mobilize them quickly, as it did on the night of the attack. Some say Gorran has already set up a defense force in case of another attack.
“If the same electoral fraud and the vote rigging that happened in the Iraqi election happens in the Kurdistan election, I think conflicts will erupt as the opposition has already announced they will ‘protect their votes by blood’ this time,” Chomani said.
The CDJ announced earlier this month that it would not participate in the election, indicating concerns and even proof of voter fraud by the two ruling parties. It also urged the other opposition parties to boycott the election, but its efforts were fruitless.
“We participated in the Iraqi parliamentary elections, but the two ruling parties committed wide voter fraud. Therefore, we by no means want to participate and legitimize a forged election,” Bakhtiar Mahmud, a member in the CDJ’s leadership council, told Al-Monitor.
Despite the CDJ boycott, some of its candidates did not obey their party’s decision and started campaigning for themselves, after Barham Salih, the former president of the CDJ, decided to return to the ranks of the PUK, which later elected Salih as their formal candidate for the Iraqi presidency.
“This is the first time I am boycotting the election. Why should I go vote?” said a female KRG employee who preferred to remain anonymous out of fear of possible retribution from authorities.
The New Generation Movement is a newly founded political party in the Kurdistan region. It was founded by businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid in 2017 after heading the “No for Now” campaign against the Kurdistan independence referendum. The movement took part in the May parliamentary elections, winning four seats.
Kazim Faruq, the New Generation Movement’s official spokesman and candidate, told Al-Monitor that their platform includes a strategic roadmap for the coming four years and another for the next 15. “If a free and fair election is held in the Kurdistan region, and if voter turnout is high, we expect to win more than 30 seats,” he added.
Faruq alleged that the PUK and the KDP are trying to carry out wide-scale voter fraud at the central data entry center in Erbil and tamper with the results to suit their interests. He called on the election commission to prevent such “dangerous plans” that would bring more disaster and instability to the already fragile region.
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