UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
IRAQ: Special report on elections
ARBIL/SULAYMANIYAH, 5 January 2005 (IRIN) -
If anybody is to make a success of Iraq's upcoming elections, set to take place on 30 January, it should be the Kurds, local officials say.
Apart from the devastating double suicide attacks in the northern Iraqi city of Arbil on 1 February 2004, they have been spared the violent fate of southern and central Iraq by a deep distaste for the anti-Coalition insurgency and better security.
Unlike Iraqis living in the centre and the south of the country, neither democracy nor the prospect of life without Saddam Hussein is entirely new to them.
Saved from the Baathist regime in 1991 by Western air power, they celebrated their de facto independence a year later.
Small wonder that Kurdish confidence in the smooth running of local polls has been high. "If we had to, we could have our elections tomorrow," one senior Kurdish official, told IRIN confidently back in September.
As polling day approaches, that confidence has begun to wane a little.
Kurds have no problem with the decision - made by the newly-formed Iraqi Electoral Commission in collaboration with the United Nations - to base voters' lists on data compiled by the World Food Programme (WFP) for Iraq-wide rations distribution.
They used a similar process in their 1992 elections, after all. What has concerned them are irregularities in the system and time constraints, they say.
The fundamental issue surrounds the verification of information on WFP forms. As elsewhere in Iraq, the idea was for local heads of the electoral commission to hand out voting lists to food stations responsible for distributing rations.
Individuals would be able to check that their personal details and details of their family were correct while picking up their food. In case of error or omission, they were to inform staff at registration centres set up throughout the country.
Generally, the system has worked. But some of those involved in the process complain of a lack of professionalism on the part of staff at the food stations. Others claim some food stations have received voter lists either late or not at all.
"It's just not good enough seeing that your personal details are wrong on so late on," Hasan Marif Mohamed, manager of the registration centre in Seyyid Sadiq, a town south of Sulaymaniyah, complained to IRIN.
"That gives you just a few days to get people like us to change things," he added, referring to the 15 December deadline for alterations to voting lists.
Kamal Khambar, head of the electoral commission in the governorate of Arbil, estimated that as many as 70,000 people in his area of control may be denied a vote because of such problems.
As in the rest of Iraq, an error somewhere in the preparation process has excluded teenagers born in 1986 from electoral lists. Most 18-year olds IRIN talked to had already visited the registration centre to ensure their first opportunity to vote was not lost.
Following a series of inter-party deals late in November, however, some Kurds are beginning to wonder whether they should bother to vote at all.
Nobody was surprised when the two main Kurdish parties - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - agreed to fight elections for Iraq's new parliament on a single ticket.
A minority with few friends within the country, the Kurds see a united front in Baghdad as their only hope of getting what they want from Iraq's new constitution.
But the 1 December announcement that the KDP and PUK, plus half a dozen smaller parties, would form a joint list for the Kurdistan regional parliament elections due to take place on the same day was less easy to understand.
"It's like George Bush and John Kerry running together against Ralph Nader," said Said Mohamed, a student in Sulaymaniyah, capital of the southern, PUK-controlled half of Iraqi Kurdistan. "I hope they win 99 percent of the vote, like that other expert at democratic elections, Saddam Hussein."
They very well may, though an independent list led by Arbil-based philosophy professor Ferhad Pirbal has been accepted to run, local analysts give it little chance of winning widespread support.
Such a result would mean dividing the 111-seat Kurdish parliament along lines already agreed in secret by Kurdish party leaders. The KDP and PUK would take an equal share of 80 percent of the seats. Smaller parties would get the rest.
To outside observers the joint ticket seems a travesty of democracy. Despite growing discontent with the politicians who have ruled them since 1991, the vast majority of Kurds prefer not to see it as such, offering two main reasons for justifying it.
The first is based on fear of their own leaders, who went to war with each other in 1993 and have run two separate, party-controlled administrations ever since.
"The public knows that neither the KDP nor the PUK would accept the other's election victory," said Stran Abdullah, editor of the Sulaymaniyah-based newspaper Asso. "It supports the deal as a means of delaying a second round of conflict between them."
Though itself undemocratic, he added, the coalition looked set, paradoxically, to improve the quality of Kurdish democracy. It assures the existence of other parties within parliament, and the closed list system devised by the UN strengthens the freedom of individual deputies to oppose their own leaders.
"Under the existing system, party leaders can sack rebellious deputies," Abdullah explained. "They won't be able to do that any more."
The second justification shows the same Machiavellian pragmatism born of weakness. "The Kurds have to show the Arab world, the US and the Europeans that they are united on the Kurdish issue," Fuat Hussein, a deputy member of the Governing Council that ruled Iraq immediately after the toppling of the Baathist regime, told IRIN in Arbil.
"How can parties in coalition for the national elections possibly fight a Kurdish election as rivals? That's absurd and self-defeating."
Critical of the coalition, which he sees as a scam by major Kurdish political players to hold on to power, Sulaymaniyah-based journalist Hiwa Osman is nonetheless forced to agree, up to a point.
"If there were elections for three assemblies in Iraq, people throughout the country would vote for new faces," he said, pointing to the 43 percent of respondents to a recent poll in a Kurdish newspaper who said they were thinking of voting for independent candidates.
As it is, questions of security are uppermost, with voters forced to give their support to men with guns who can fight if need be. "These elections are nothing to do with democracy," said Osman. "They're about fear of domination, and that will consolidate the power of people who are a model of bad governance."
Themes: (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Human Rights, (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs
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