Cack Ripwear, a primary school teacher in his thirties who owns a cosmetics store in Sulaymaniyah, did not vote in the Iraqi elections on May 12th. His reluctance to take part in the political process is a result of the failure of politicians to secure a decent life for the residents of the Kurdistan region and Iraq.
Sulaymaniyah has witnessed political conflict since 2009 when Nushirwan Mustafa split from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and formed Gorran (the movement for change).
The Gorran movement became the first opposition party to threaten the power of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdistan Democratic Party. The two parties have shared rule over Kurdistan since the 1990s, dividing it into two regions: the green zone, representing the colour of the Union and the yellow zone, the colour of the Kurdish Democratic Party.
In the past three years Sulaymaniyah has witnessed waves of strikes and protests by teachers and professionals in other sectors, against the imposition of a mandatory savings system. The protests were limited to the Union’s area of influence, i.e. the green zone.
Mandatory savings were introduced after Baghdad decided not to provide salaries for public sector employees in Kurdistan, including the Peshmerga Forces.
There are clear differences in approach to free expression and assembly between the areas of influence of the two parties. The green zone - including Sulaymaniyah - had always been more open to protest and the printing of opposition newspapers, even the broadcast channels of opposing parties. Whereas voices of opposition are not tolerated in Erbil, where the Democratic Party bans any opposition in the areas they control.
Protests broke out in Erbil last March, the first time in areas under Kurdistan Democratic Party control. According to Ripwear, protesters in Sulaymaniyah were delighted to know that teachers and medical staff were protesting in Erbil. The protests did not last because Democratic authorities cracked down and forced the teachers to resume work.
Civil servants in the whole Kurdistan region have been experiencing harsh economic conditions for the past three years as a result to forfeiting their salaries after the conflict between Erbil and Baghdad.
The conflict between Erbil and Baghdad had increased under the former Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maliki, and continued under Haider Al Abadi. The political crisis became more complicated after Erbil announced a referendum on self-determination in September.
Baghdad had taken a number of disciplinary actions against the government of Kurdistan because of the independence referendum, which Bagdad regarded as illegitimate. With the support of Turkey and Iran, the region was under siege, with all airports and land ports closed down.
Ripwear thinks residents of the region are stuck between a failed local administration and a federal government that punishes them by not sending their salaries, as revenge against the Erbil government.
Not the right time for polls
Kurds and Suna in Iraq demanded the elections be postponed, but Shi’a parties insisted that the polls take place as scheduled. Kurds wanted to postpone the polls until they resolved their issues with the federal government and the ruling parties in Kurdistan, while Suna demanded a delay until the return of refugees to their areas after defeating Isis.
The parliamentary elections of May 12th were the first since the defeat of Isis at the end of last year. They are the second election since the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq in 2011, and only the fourth since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The elected parliament will select the President and the Prime Minister of the Republic.
The citizens of Kurdistan headed to the polls to vote for their candidates in the Iraqi congress, as more than 3 million are entitled to vote.
25 political entities participated in the elections, consisting of 19 parties, 4 alliances and 2 independent candidates. There were 503 candidates in the elections consisting of 357 men and 146 women.
For the first time, Kurdish candidates ran on Arab lists, like the "victory alliance" led by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, the “national wisdom movement” led by Ammar al-Hakim, and the coalition headed by Iraqi Vice President Iyad Allawi. A few days before polling, two Kurdish candidates withdrew from the victory list and joined the KDP in Dohuk and Erbil.
The number of seats allocated to South Kurdistan in the Iraqi Council of Representatives is 46 seats distributed as follows: 16 seats for the province of Erbil, one quota for Christians, 18 seats for the province of Sulaymaniyah, and 12 seats for the province of Dohuk, including a quota for Christians.
Other Kurdish strongholds in Iraq
7 Kurd lists were competing in the polls in disputed areas such as Kirkuk, which is ethnically mixed (Kurds, Arabs, Turkmans), Nineveh and Diyala (Arab, Kurdish, Shi’a and Sunni).
In the previous elections, the Kurds in Diyala won 3 seats out of a total of 14 seats at the Iraqi Council of Representatives, two seats for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and one seat for the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
In Nineveh, Kurds won 11 seats out of a total of 31 seats: 6 seats for the Kurdistan Democratic Party and 3 seats for the Patriotic Union.
In Kirkuk, Kurds won 8 seats out of 12 with a quota for the Christians: 6 seats for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and two seats for the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
Kurdish political weight
The initial results from the Elections Commission showed a decline in seats won by Kurds in the Iraqi Council of Representatives.
There is a consensus among Kurdish politicians that the increased number of Kurdish lists in the parliamentary elections negatively affected the number of seats won by Kurds in the Iraqi parliament.
In the 2014 elections of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, Kurds won 65 seats as follows: 28 seats for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, 20 seats for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, 10 seats for the Change Movement, 4 seats for the Kurdistan Islamic Union and 3 seats for the Kurdistan Islamic Group.
The political scene seems unclear for Kurds, and unlike the Lebanese constitution, the Iraqi constitution does not explicitly distribute posts between sects and ethnicities. It has been the custom since 2003 that a Shi’a got the leadership of the government, a Kurd the presidency and a Sunni the leadership of parliament. Fears are growing among Kurds that constitutional amendments will be introduced for a majority government that is not formed by consensus of all the parties.
Hewa Othman, a political analyst thinks Kurds are in their worst situation since 2003, as a consequence of the referendum, the poor economic situation and fragmentation among political parties.
"Another obstacle is that whoever is elected from the region does not necessarily represent Kurdish demands and aspirations in Baghdad. Especially since the establishment of the new Iraqi state is still ongoing after the adoption of the constitution. Many laws are yet to be developed by the committees. The popular choice of these deputies will not necessarily enable them to carry out this complex task. The parties have put forward lists to their people and the most popular has won, not necessarily the most competent,” he added.