The Kurdistan Democratic Party made a strong showing according to preliminary results in the Kurdistan Regional Government elections in northern Iraq. Polls closed Sunday and preliminary results showed a relatively low turnout, with the leading party increasing its share in the regional parliament. The elections will give the Kurdistan region bargaining power in Baghdad and may increase its influence in the Middle East.
A year after almost three million voters in northern Iraq voted for independence in an independence referendum held by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), residents of the autonomous region went to the polls to choose a regional parliament. Much is on the line in the Kurdistan region, including the Kurdistan Democratic Party's (KDP) desire for a strong showing to stabilize the region and to send a message to Baghdad that the Kurds are divided in the face of attempts by Iran and others to sow division in the region. The KDP has generally been closer to the US, Turkey and states in the region that are closer to the West, whereas the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran Movement are seen as closer to Iran.
The PUK however asserts that its rivals are doing a deal with Iran out of spite because the West opposes the referendum last year.
The Kurds have put forward candidates. for Iraq's presidency, and both Iran and the US are seeking to encouraging Kurdish parties to support different prime minister candidates in Baghdad. Iraq held national elections in May but has been unable to form a government. The Kurdish parties are key to forming that government, but the regional elections are necessary for the Kurdish region to get its own house to deal with issues in Baghdad.
The Kurdistan region has enjoyed varying degrees of autonomy for decades and has held three elections since a new Iraqi Constitution was agreed to in 2005. In 2009, the two largest parties, the KDP and PUK received roughly 30 seats each and turnout in the election was 78% of the 2.5 million voters. A rival party called the Gorran ("Change") Movement took 25 seats. The 2013 elections were roughly the same with turnout at 74%, and 2.6 million eligible voters and the three major parties getting 25-30 seats each.
This year's elections come after a year of turmoil in Iraq and the Kurdistan region. In October 2017, the Iraqi central government sent its army into Kirkuk, pushing out the Kurdish Peshmerga who had defended the city from ISIS and run the city for three years. The KDP saw its offices closed in Kirkuk and it was under tremendous pressure from Iraq, Iran, Turkey and the international community, which excoriated it for holding the independence referendum.
The current elections showed a lower turnout, only 57% or 1.6 million voters, which shows growing cynicism regarding the regional government's ability to affect change. According to Rudaw, a Kurdish news network, preliminary results showed 43% had voted for the KDP, while only 20% had chosen the PUK and 12% had chosen Gorran. Islamic parties got around 10% of the vote.
As polls closed, there was already controversy with some of the smaller parties saying they might reject the results.
The Kurdistan region is a key center of stability in Iraq and sits at the triangle between Turkey, Iraq and Syria, making it a strategic area economically and geographically. After the war on ISIS, many Kurds hoped that the West would support its independence referendum.
Instead, the US harshly opposed the referendum, seeking to bolster Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. But Abadi proved a failure in the May 2018 elections and Washington's hopes were dashed as Iranian-backed parties and militias continued to grow in influence in Iraq. Now the Kurdistan region is once again a key to Iraq, but the KDP wants a strong showing so as to show that it cannot be bypassed. It wants Baghdad to adhere to the Iraqi Constitution and share power in Kirkuk, and it has other demands regarding budgets, oil and security.
The elections in the Kurdistan region are therefore an important step toward providing the local parliament legitimacy and the eventual election of a new KRG president. All of this has to come about as the rest of Iraq suffers from chaotic coalition building and protests, and as the US pressures Iraq to confront Iran and its sprawling militia infrastructure.
As if on cue for the elections, a Saudi Arabian airline made its first flight to Erbil as part of a new commercial route from Jeddah to Erbil. After the independence referendum, Baghdad had sought to close the Kurdistan region's airports. Now the airports are functioning and the important economic link to Saudi Arabia is growing.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.