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  • Writer's pictureMECRA

Why did the KDP boycott the elections in Kirkuk?

Updated: Sep 11, 2018

Kirkuk Citadel (Courtesy Adam Lucente)

In the wake of the Iraqi elections, there are still plenty of questions to answer, not least regarding the KDP’s position throughout their course. Why did the KDP boycott the elections in Kirkuk? Why did it seek the support of other Kurdistan based parties to boycott the wider Iraqi elections, only proceeding with them “involuntarily” once it became clear that the others would not go along with that plan?

The answer seems to boil down to one thing: legitimacy. Typically, in a political system, the people have an opportunity to vote, and that opportunity provides the government that follows with the legitimacy it needs to enact its policies. People have the opportunity to have their say, and the results of that process have at least the tacit assent of those who live within a country.

This is a cornerstone of good governance, until it runs into two issues in the case of Iraq. The first is that, by this point, Kurdistan, including Kirkuk, should not be a part of Iraq. It voted overwhelmingly to leave Iraq, and was only kept within it through the use of military force. In these circumstances, being a part of the elections that follow seems like accepting that militarily imposed status quo, lending a sense of authority to a system that should have no authority over Kurdistan.

Participation in the elections in Kirkuk would have been a statement that the Iraqi political system still applied to it, and that things were settled there

This is doubly the case when it comes to Kirkuk. Participation in the elections in Kirkuk would have been a statement that the Iraqi political system still applied to it, and that things were settled there, rather than it being effectively occupied territory following its capture by Baghdad’s army in the wake of last year’s referendum. It is a case where participation achieves little beyond suggesting that Kurdistan accepts the situation in Kirkuk, which it does not.

There is also the point that the elections are secondary to a much more important vote with a much clearer mandate: the referendum on Kurdistan’s independence. This vote enjoyed both good turnout and massive support for independence in the region, yet the Iraqi government chose to ignore those votes. Why should voters cast their votes again, if it seems clear that Baghdad is not prepared to listen to them? If the government of the south is not prepared to recognize the referendum result, why should the KDP recognize the elections?

Certainly, the results do little to change the status of Kirkuk. It is, and remains, a Kurdish city in Iraqi hands. It is there, not because of any political process, but because of a series of military actions, beginning with those under Saddam Hussein and leading right through to the ones of last year. As early as 1970, Mustafa Barzani stated that Kurdistan included Kirkuk as a fundamental part of itself, and the idea of an independent Kurdistan without Kirkuk was intolerable. Participating in the vote in Kirkuk is effectively pretending that the Iraqi government cares about such things when it comes to the city. It is a lie that the KDP appears unwilling to have any part in.

Kirkuk is, in many ways, a microcosm of the problems in Kurdistan’s politics

There are plenty who are willing to take part though. In Kirkuk, more than 300 representatives sought just 13 seats, representing many different corners of the political spectrum. It is, in many ways, a microcosm of the problems in Kurdistan’s politics: there are so many people busy fighting for relatively pieces of power that they neglect the bigger picture of Kurdistan’s place in the wider world. They fight to win a rigged game, when they should be working together to try to change the nature of the game completely. Rather than arguing over who gets the 13 seats the Iraqi government has allocated in Kirkuk, they should be showing the elections there up as an essentially hollow exercise, designed to maintain Baghdad’s control over the city.

Is it an exercise that will determine the future of Kirkuk? That seems unlikely, since that future is likely to be determined by a combination of both the general stability of Iraq and the progress of Kurdistan towards independence. The KDP’s policy on Kirkuk, that it is a part of Kurdistan and necessary to the region’s economic stability, does not appear to have changed with these elections. If anything, they have only served to highlight the difficulties that might be faced in the policy’s implementation.

What does the future hold for Kirkuk? The difficulty is that, as long as its oil reserves remain valuable, it will remain a point of contention. The Baghdad government will want it for its resources, while Kurdistan will need it as a cornerstone of its nascent state, and will always be unwilling to give up what started life as Kurdish territory.

There is no reason to believe that the KDP participating in the elections in Kirkuk would have changed things there. Nor does it seem likely that the overall picture of centrally imposed control from Baghdad will change much just because of the changes in personnel brought about by the national elections. At this stage the most that can be hoped for is a measure of stability while the political parties of Kurdistan realize that they cannot squabble about power within the region, when the real argument to be had is outside it.

The author is a Research Scholar At Durham University.

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