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 Are elections in Iraqi Kurdistan democratic?

 Opinion — Analysis  
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Are elections in Iraqi Kurdistan democratic?  7.7.2010  
By Kanabi Mohammed Awla
Special to 

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July 7, 2010

Following the fall, or retreat, of the Baath from Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991, the parties of the Kurdistan Front pretended that they were in contrast to the Baath’s dictatorial regime by establishing a regional democratic government through which the people aspired to realize their national rights and freedom. The puropse of establishing a system different from that of the Baath was to guarantee rights and interests of the people and to realize political and civil freedoms. Their major stakes were in the creation of a multiparty system and holding general, free, equal elections in order to establish that democracy.

From 1992 to 2010, the people of Iraqi Kurdistan participated in two presidential elections (1992, 2009), three legislative elections (1992, 2005, 2009), one municipal election (2000 in the PUK zone, 2001 in the KDP zone), and one governorate election (2005). These elections, which viewed a plurality of parties and electoral lists, were viewed by most of the Kurdish political parties, leaders, and some foreign monitors as a pre-condition to democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The theorists of democracy consider regular, free, equal and competitive elections as a pre- condition to democracy. In our era, people can’t govern themselves directly, that is why they confide their government affairs to a group of individuals whom they elect as their representatives. According to John Stuart Mill, this representation is essential for modern democracy. The American democratic theorist Robert A. Dahl argues that elections can’t be democratic if all the adult citizens don’t have an equal and effective opportunity to vote and if all votes aren’t counted as equal. This kind of vote is a criterion of democracy. Every adult citizen must have an equal right to participate in elections, and vote freely in order to elect his representative to parliament or any other council. The existence of many electoral lists and parties further democratizes the process, because the people would have opportunity to prefer a certain candidate to another one and parties aggregate citizens’ interests and regulate their will.

Iraqi Kurdistan has a multiparty system and holds general elections, however, let’s analyze if this multiparty system and electoral processes are democratic or not. This Kurdish region transferred from a single party system (the Baath Party) to a multiparty system. This new party system lends a democratic characteristic to the political process. However, this multiparty system leads to chaos when parties cause violence and combat each other, instead of competing against each other democratically and pacifically. Additionally, their conflict and violence deepen the personal and political disputes, and don’t allow to a pacific alternation in political power to take place. In this case, this “multiparty system” becomes the direct cause of democracy’s collapse. In 1994, when a civil war between the KDP and the PUK broke out, most of the political parties became divided between the KDP’s front and the PUK’s front. These very parties murdered democracy and divided the region into KDP’s and PUK’s zones, consequently Iraqi Kurdistan region didn’t returned to its pre-war situation when their region was united.

In the 2005 and 2009 elections, the KDP, PUK, and other parties established a single, broad-based electoral list of alliance. This was done in order to avoid the violence which might take place due to the immaturity of democratic culture in Kurdish society ; however, the alliance didn’t give room to political competition and opposition. Consequently, a government without opposition was formed. Although, in the 2009 presidential and legislative elections, there was electoral competition and a real political opposition was born. Yet violence almost took place, and was only prevented by the intelligence of some political leaders.

Aditionally, during the electoral campaigns, violence takes place and candidates of small and opposition parties could be hindered to freely make their electoral campaigns. Before the elections, voters may be forced to vote for a certain party or a certain candidate, and if they don’t, they may be confronted with some problems like getting sacked from their job or hindered from employment. Votes may be bought in return for money or gifts. In addition to that, on turnout day, electoral fraud becomes regular: voting more than once, burning electoral cards which are filled in favor of opposition parties or candidates, and instead, filling an enormous number of electoral cards in favor of governing party’s candidates…etc. All these acts make the electoral process a simple farce. So elections are for a false legitimization of the power of governors, and if this continues, instead of monopolizing power, they monopolize the election. Reports of home and foreign observers give detailed descriptions of the violations and electoral frauds in Iraqi Kurdistan.

We deduce that a chaotic and violent multiparty system, as well as forced and fraudulent elections, can’t produce a democratic process and system. This phenomenon is a repetition of the political processes in most of the Third World countries ; a single party or clique takes power, often by a coup, and doesn’t allow opposition or elections. Or, the party or clique oppresses opposition and manipulates elections so as to stay in power, seize the country’s wealth, and show to the world that they have ‘democratic legitimacy’ thanks to ‘elections.’ Africa, Arab World, and Far and Middle East countries are full of this kind of process and system.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, there is neither a democratic culture, nor an independent and active civil society, or an active and free intellectual elite. The political culture is obedience and submission, the civil society is dependent on parties and government, and most of the intellectuals are either afraid and don’t express their real opinion, or justify and defend the regime because they benefit from it. Iraqi Kurdistan needs political, economic, cultural and social change.

By Kanabi Mohammed Awla for, July 7, 2010. You may reach the author via email at: kanawla(a)

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