The fate of Kurdish parties after Iraq's election

A Kurdish man wearing traditional clothes walks past a Kurdish flag painted onto a wall in Erbil the capital of the Northern region of Iraq
6 min read
22 October, 2021
Analysis: Iraqi elections have changed the political reality in the Kurdistan Region, with surprise wins for some parties and severe blows for others.

Preliminary results from Iraq’s elections have riled up the country, with several parties rejecting them altogether.

At the same time, the vote has changed the political reality in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Region, giving more power to some parties while humiliating others.

The election saw a record low turnout, with many boycotting the vote due to scepticism about the system and widespread disapproval of the parties who have ruled the country for years. On average, however, more Kurdish voters showed up to the polls than in other Iraqi provinces.

The official preliminary results from the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) late on Saturday showed that the Kurdistan Region’s ruling party maintained a larger vote share in Iraq than it did in the previous 2018 election.

"The vote has changed the political reality in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan Region, giving more power to some parties while humiliating others"

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has preliminarily pocketed 33 seats, an increase from the 25 they earned in the controversial 2018 elections. The party was already celebrating victory for six days when the official preliminary results came out, with crowds flooding the streets celebrating with fireworks, and, at times, celebratory gunfire.

The results came as a shock for other parties. While the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) continued to enjoy influence by winning 16 seats, only two less than the previous election, their partner in the Kurdistan Coalition hit rock bottom.

Gorran (Change Movement) faced an electoral humiliation, with the party going from five seats in the Iraqi parliament to zero this time around.

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Unexpected victories and losses

Gorran was formed in 2009 by a group of dominant PUK figures who disapproved of the party’s policies. The new party, which started off as the first real opposition movement in the Kurdish political process, soon outgrew the PUK in the 2013 Kurdistan Region elections and became part of the government.

Gorran then re-joined forces with the PUK and formed the Kurdistan Coalition to contest the 2021 Iraqi elections, hoping to increase their influence and gain more votes with a slogan of “We are stronger together”. But the PUK failed to keep all of its 18 seats, while Gorran lost all of theirs.

For many people, Gorran’s disastrous defeat in the 2021 elections was a sign that their supporters did not approve of the party’s decision to rejoin forces with a party they once split from. It also appeared to be a rejection of Gorran’s involvement in the government.

Following the defeat, the party offered an apology to its followers, claiming responsibility and promising to reform itself. Three days after the elections, Gorran’s governing body announced that all its members were to resign and the party’s leadership would be run by an interim group until further notice.

The New Generation party led by businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid was among the dark horses of the election.

The party surprised everyone when they emerged from the elections with nine seats, winning seats in the PUK and KDP stronghold cities of Kirkuk and Erbil. 

New Generation has served as an active opposition party in the Kurdistan Region and apparently aims to remain so in Iraq.

Iraq election
On average, more Kurdish voters showed up to the polls than in other Iraqi provinces. [Getty]

Kurds in the government

In a statement on Monday, New Generation announced that they will not be involved in the formation of the government.

“The New Generation movement announces that we will not participate in the formation of the future Iraqi government, and we do not want any positions or ministries,” read the statement.

It was a reiteration of the party head’s position. On 12 October, Abdulwahid held a press conference where he said that he would support a united Kurdish front in Baghdad if it were to achieve Kurdish rights, but they would not take up any positions and do not want to be part of the government.

The party’s stance comes as the KDP has already started working on a united Kurdish front. Playing the big brother to all, on Monday the KDP started to talk with other Kurdish parties. 

"While the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan continued to enjoy influence by winning 16 seats, their partner in the Kurdistan Coalition, Gorran, hit rock bottom"

A delegation from the KDP visited both the PUK and Gorran headquarters in a bid to promote a united Kurdish front in the Iraqi parliament.

“What we are looking for is when we go from Kurdistan to Baghdad, to be together as the Kurdistan parties in the political process, and give some power to Kurdish representatives to protect the rights that have been achieved through the constitution and achieve the rights we have not yet achieved,” KDP spokesperson Mahmood Mohammed said in a press conference following the meeting with the PUK.

The PUK, despite rejecting the election results in Erbil and alleging fraud, has welcomed the KDP’s initiative.

“We will put in all our efforts to be united in Baghdad and also in the Kurdistan Region, that unity is necessary, this initiative the KDP has made was in our program as well, but we were waiting for the election results,” PUK spokesperson Amin Baba Sheikh said in the press conference.

The KDP is set to visit other Kurdish parties “regardless if they have a seat in Baghdad or not” according to Mohammed. However, New Generation is not the only party that has refused to participate in the government formation process.

Kurdistan Justice Group (Komal) on Monday also declared that they would not be participating in either the government formation process or in forming coalitions. However, in the bigger picture, their stance does not seem to change much given that they only obtained one seat in the election.

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Kurds in Iraq going forward

Following the US invasion of Iraq, and the formation of the federal system, a muhasasa (division of power) was agreed upon by Kurds, Shias, and Sunnis. The unwritten agreement has since given Shias the premiership, Sunnis the parliamentary speaker, and Kurds the Presidency of the country.

For years, the PUK has held the Presidency in its grip, first with the late Jalal Talabani, then with Fouad Massoum, and now with Barham Salih.

In 2018, the presidency was a matter of controversy as the KDP thought they deserved the position since they had more seats in the parliament. However, their candidate Fuad Hussein fell short of support compared to the PUK’s Barham Salih, who had strong backing, and he was instead named foreign minister.

This year, the PUK wants to keep the Presidency. The PUK’s co-chair, Bafel Talabani, on election day told reporters that Barham Salih will remain as their candidate to run for a second term.

"For years, the PUK has held the Presidency in its grip, first with the late Jalal Talabani, then with Fouad Massoum, and now with Barham Salih"

However, the KDP has become stronger while the PUK is two seats weaker, and the PUK candidate might not survive without massive backing if the KDP decides to put forth their own candidate.

While the topic of who will take the presidency is a matter of common chatter among the Kurdish public, the KDP has not made any direct remarks about their desire for the position.

The KDP, like many other Kurdish parties, have emphasised the importance of the presidency remaining Kurdish, and have sent a clear message to Shias and Sunnis by saying that they should let the Kurds decide among themselves who they will nominate to take the position.