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From 'kingmakers' to fraud allegations, Kurds in the 2018 Iraq elections

A voting machine in Iraq

By Seth Frantzman with Ceng Sagnic

In an interview with Ceng Sagnic, coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Program at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies in Tel Aviv. and Columnist at K24Turkce, he discussed the recent elections in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. There have been controversies after the May 12 vote in the Kurdish provinces, including in Kirkuk, Sulimaniyeh, Erbil and Dohuk. Many of the issues have centered around questions of turnout and also controversies in Sulimaniyeh over clashes between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Gorran parties. This concerns where Kurds will be represented as well in parliament after the elections and whether the region will be more divided. In the wake of the independence referendum last year a series of crises have rocket the Kurdistan Autonomous Government (KRG).

Tell me what you think of the vote

It was a problematic electoral process for many reasons but especially due to the role of the militias across the country, inability of IDPs to vote, and the tense situation in formerly ISIS-controlled regions including the disputed territories. The lowest voter turnout since 2003 should be indicative of an alarming level of lack of confidence in the political process across the country except the Kurdistan Region, where the participation was substantially higher.

Specifically about the Kurds though what do you think about the issues in Suli and other areas?

There are allegations that the PUK was engaged in an elections fraud based on initial results showing the party ahead of all of its rivals in Sulaymaniyah, Halabja and Kirkuk. However, there have not been any credible evidence provided by none of the opposition parties nor by the ruling KDP that elections were rigged. In my opinion, two factors have contributed to the decisive victory of the PUK in Sulaymaniyah and Halabja. First, the substantially low voter turnout of below 50% was an advantage to the PUK as this is the de facto ruling party in these regions, paying salaries to its cadres, was able to oblige the majority of its voters to show up to polling stations since a large number of its voters are on payroll of the party or the regional government itself. This was not the case for the opposition parties. It is quite possible that the missing 50% of voters mostly included supporters of the opposition.

Whilst the second factor is the emergence of two new opposition parties in non-KDP-influenced regions: Newey Nwe of Shaswar Abdulwahid and the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ) of the former KRG Prime Minister Barham Saleh. As per initial results, these two parties shared the 13% of the votes that the Goran Movement lost, thus granted PUK an almost unexpected victory. In other words, the Goran Movement had once united the opposition against the PUK and therefore won the majority in PUK-influenced areas, but with the emergence of new opposition parties the anti-PUK bloc was divided. It played well into the hands of the PUK.

I am definitely not ruling out the possibility of an elections fraud by PUK or any other party though. We have yet to see some real evidence, which have not been provided.

Despite lower turnout and fraud claims; the Kurds have retained a solid 60 members of parliament which is similar to their past performance if you add them all up, so what do you foresee going forward?

Kurds did well in the elections but not enough to be the sole kingmaker for the new cabinet. That is mostly because there are a lot of Shiite coalitions and lists with significantly less ideological tolerance towards an alliance with the Kurds. Even though I expect Al-Abadi to attempt to form an alliance including the Kurds in order to form the new government as soon as possible while keeping the Americans pleased, who will decide the Kurds' position in the new government will be Al-Abadi's other potential Shiite allies who are seemingly less interested in working with the Kurds.

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