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More Divided Than Ever, Iraq's Kurds Risk Shooting Themselves in the Foot
By Tanya Goudsouzian

The story goes something like this: A Kurdish politician is campaigning for votes in a village somewhere in northern Iraq. When a villager complains they don't have regular electricity, the politician whips out his cellphone, attempts to text a minion to ask for a generator to be sent to the village immediately. As he hits 'send', the villager says: "We don't have cellphone reception either."

This and other jokes are making the rounds across the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the run-up to Iraq's parliamentary elections on Saturday May 12.

If the elections have failed to elicit much enthusiasm, it should come as little surprise. This has arguably been "Kurdistan's annus horribilis".

In the span of six months, Iraq's Kurds have endured a succession of catastrophic defeats. In September, an ill-timed gambit by former Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani to hold an independence referendum backfired, resulting in the loss of leverage vis-a-vis Baghdad.

The following month, the nation lost an iconic leader with the death of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Two weeks later, they lost control over oil-rich Kirkuk, often described as "the Kurdish Jerusalem".

The suspension of international flights to and from airports in the Kurdistan Region, a punitive measure imposed by Baghdad supported by neighbouring capitals after the referendum, was only partially lifted in March with some flights resuming in early April. By then, however, the "siege" had already destroyed whatever was left of morale among war-weary Kurds. Had they not, after all, lead the ground war against the Islamic State group for four years?

In stark contrast to the public displays of jubilation in previous years, turnout for this year's parliamentary elections is anticipated to be low across the country, but especially in the Kurdish region. Apathy prevails in some quarters, and exasperation in others. The Kurdish region's festering economic crisis is entering its fourth year, with public sector salaries and pensions drastically slashed, and payments routinely delayed.

Reversal of gains

For many Kurd watchers, what is clear is that the decades of two-party dominance over the governance of the Kurdish north has formally ended. While on paper this may appear as though the Kurdish polity is maturing, the increasingly fragmented political scene in Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaimania risks further weakening the Kurds' position in Baghdad.

For cynics, these developments indicate a reversal of the gains made toward Kurdish aspirations for independence since the No Fly Zone was applied in the wake of the Gulf War in 1991.

The sudden emergence of the New Generation Party six months ago is reminiscent of the rise of the Goran (Change) movement in 2009. While Goran was a splinter group led by disenchanted longtime members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and appealed to the younger generations by promising transparency and reform, New Generation bills itself as a party led by the youth, for the youth.

Led by the founder of the influential NRT TV and radio network, Shaswar Abdulwahid, New Generation echoes Bernie Sanders' campaign of a "new revolution is coming" with an emphasis on the need to vote out the old and bring in the new.

Also joining the fray is former Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Barham Salih. Once a trusted confidante of the late Jalal Talabani, Salih launched his own party last September - the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ). Salih is widely regarded as an intellectual and a skilled statesman who commands respect both in Baghdad and Washington. His party is generally viewed as the preferred alternative for disillusioned PUK and Goran voters who would opt for a tested politician over Shaswar Abdulwahid's New Generation.

The KDP is likely to garner most votes in its traditional strongholds, in the regional capital Erbil and Dohuk, which has been home to most of the KRG's camps for refugees and IDPs. But Salih's Coalition for Democracy and Justice is also expected to do well in Erbil, owing to voters defecting from the PUK.

The KDP is not standing in Kirkuk, which they view as "occupied" by the Iraqi army and unsafe. Cynical observers have suggested this may merely be political posturing as the KDP fear that, following the ill-fated referendum and the loss of many disputed territories, they would likely lose most - if not all - seats they currently hold in Kirkuk anyway.

Factionalisation

The KDP's main rival, the PUK, is not expected to fare well; by most insider accounts, the party will likely yield worse results than in 2014 when it won 21 seats (of 328 - albeit Kurds can only win up to 60).

Ahead of the campaign, pollsters were predicting this time round the PUK would only secure six seats. However, it seems as the campaign progresses, the party has gained a little momentum and are firming up their core support base. If the turnout is low as expected, this may actually help the PUK remain comfortably in double figures.

PUK supporters have been dismayed in recent years by a "factionalisation" within the party, which was once viewed as the modern progressive Kurdish political grouping versus the more traditional tribal structure of the KDP.

In the years after the party's late leader Jalal Talabani suffered a debilitating stroke, three clear sub-groups emerged within the PUK: one led by Hero Ibrahim Ahmed and the Talabani Family, the second by the late Talabani's erstwhile deputy Kosrat Rasul, and the third by Barham Salih, who as noted, has now left the PUK.

The CDJ, meanwhile, had been slated to win at least 10 seats with some predictions as high as 15 - with rumours swirling that Barham Salih might make a bid for the presidency to follow in the steps of his political mentor, Jalal Talabani. Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, it has become a tradition for a Kurd to hold the largely ceremonial position, even though it is not stipulated in the Iraqi constitution. Some Kurdish veterans of the Baghdad political scene have, incidentally, suggested it might be better for the Kurds to secure the role of parliament speaker instead of the presidency.

Yet the initial part of his campaign has come across as lacking in lustre, and he appears to be losing momentum.

The once-celebrated Goran is expected to suffer somewhat after the death of its founder, Nawshirwan Mustafa, in May 2017. Observers say the party, which garnered significant support between 2009 and 2014 by capitalising on disgust at the rampant corruption in the region, and a desire for a "change", has been somewhat lifeless in recent months offering no effective narrative on the referendum or subsequent events.

Goran is predicted - by local pollsters - to see its seats drop from nine to about five or six, level with the PUK.

The New Generation, while still in its infancy, will likely win a couple of seats in Sulaimania, but questions abound over the source of their funding and support. Some critics have pointed out similarities in logos and party colours with Turkey's ruling AK Party, while others speculate that their support is from a little closer to home.

New faces

Indeed, for those who are paying close attention to the campaigns, the branding of the parties has been a subject of discussion. The KDP and Goran seem to be sticking to formulae that have worked well for them in the past. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, for instance, has been repeating the decades' old slogan "strong KDP equals a strong Kurdistan".

The CDJ's white-and-turquoise branding for Salih is generally going down well, although the little Nike-inspired tick on the candidate posters has led to some inevitable "just do it" parodies. The PUK, in a clear expression of discontent with the direction taken by the KDP-controlled regional government, have stripped back their graphics and are boldly using the slogan "Taking Back Our Future".

For habitu├ęs of Iraqi elections, there have been a number of new faces smiling down from posters on the streets of the Kurdish region in the first week of the campaign, in an apparent attempt to show that new blood and fresh faces are coming up the ranks of the parties. This mirrors some movement at the top of the parties with the likes of Qubad Talabani and Lahur Talabani of the PUK and Nechirvan Barzani of the KDP becoming the real faces of their parties.

This is not to say, however, that some of the older heavyweights are not still pulling strings from behind the scenes.

Despite their many differences, high on the agenda of all competing parties is the need for a stronger Kurdish presence in Baghdad to re-establish some of the influence lost in recent months. It is unclear if they will be able to work together. It is likely that two Kurdish blocs will appear; the traditional marriage-of-convenience between the KDP and the PUK on one side and everyone else on the other.

To fully understand the Kurdish posturing, it helps to remember that there are Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) parliamentary and presidency elections slated for the autumn - and many see the Iraqi parliamentary polls as a litmus test. If the ruling parties here don't get the results they want, it is possible the other elections would be delayed.

Rebuilding bridges

In recent years, as the Kurdish Peshmerga led the ground fight in the war against IS, Kurdish politicians took a bullish - and at times confrontational - stance towards the central government, and carefully crafted alliances in Baghdad were carelessly disregarded. But times have changed.

As things stand, the Kurds cannot afford any more setbacks. They have lost the de facto independence they carved out after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. With dreams of full-fledged independence pushed off the table for the foreseeable future, and an ongoing economic crisis that has paralysed the region's development - in addition to the loss of control over the disputed territories - it will take more than flashy rhetoric and lofty promises to win back the confidence of the Kurdish voter.

The reality is that the Kurds need to rebuild their bridges with Baghdad in order not to lose whatever is left of the Kurdish region's influence. What is needed is a unified Kurdish voice in Baghdad, with Kurdish MPs working across party lines to protect Kurdish interests and lobby for bills that do not disenfranchise one group over the other.

If the new crop of MPs fail to do so, Iraq's Kurds run the risk of facing several more "anni horribiles".


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