The fact that only around 44 percent of Iraq’s eligible voters participated in the elections is not such a terrible thing. It is low but it’s not a million miles away from US voter turnout rates that sit around 50 percent. The problem comes when you compare it to Iraq’s voter turnout since 2003, when the Saddam Hussein regime was removed. In 2005, Iraq’s first elections after decades of dictatorship, the turnout was a far more enthusiastic 76 percent. Other elections since then have seen a turnout of around 60 percent.
The only conclusion to be drawn: People here don’t believe their votes can change anything anymore.
I cannot hide my belief that democracy in Kurdistan has been a very fragile thing for years.
The whole process in Iraq is annoying and tedious and it disturbs the social fabric. Political parties here use all sorts of defamatory and violent tactics to campaign and then when the results of the election are eventually counted up, neither the loser or the winner accepts the results as they should.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, we have been holding elections for longer than the rest of the country. Fourteen years earlier than Iraq, to be exact, when Saddam Hussein’s troops and administrators were expelled from this area. So the first elections here were held in May 1992.
During those first elections, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, managed to get 2 percent more of the votes than the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. The PUK rejected the results, calling them fraudulent. The two political parties, both of which command tens of thousands of armed men, were forced to agree to share power, each taking half of the region and the government.
In 26 years, things haven’t changed here that much, to be honest. In these elections, those two forces won almost all of the votes in the Iraqi Kurdish region, according to preliminary counts. Other political parties that have become more influential here over the past few years, have rejected the results, calling them fraudulent.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, there have been many anti-government protests recently. Clearly a lot of people here believe that the ruling parties are the reason for their financial problems, regional mismanagement and oppression of all kinds. Many of those people still believe that change must come through the ballot box. But what if the ballot box cannot help solve these issues?
It has only been a few days since the federal elections but in that time, thousands of the citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan have been asking the same question: Where is my vote? Several local opposition parties got this question going. The Change movement, the Coalition for Democracy and Justice headed by Barham Salih, and the two Islamic parties here have accused the PUK of somehow getting into the voting system in Sulaymaniyah, some parts of Kirkuk and other areas under PUK control and tampering with the vote.
The opposition parties say that ballot boxes have been opened and that the votes inside tally up differently to votes recorded by the digital system. They also insist that there must be a recount or, more dramatically, that the election must be repeated.
Meanwhile the PUK simply rejects all of those accusations, arguing that the opposition parties cannot accept their loss.
The whole debacle is yet another blow to local trust in the democratic process. Year after year, people here feel more sure that their votes are being stolen. Every election, they become more certain that the electoral process in Iraqi Kurdistan can’t happen without these accusations of fraud, or even fraud itself. If this issue is not addressed, the risk of violence increases.
I cannot hide my belief that democracy in Kurdistan has been a very fragile thing for years. I will not pretend that I think the process is achieving great results, and by that, I mean everything from the campaigning to the ballot, to the formation of the government to the institution of an authority that doesn’t prioritise serving its people.
For all of those reasons, I did not participate in this election. But I still have hope. I hope that over the next four years I will see something different in our Kurdish democracy, something that will make me into one of the voters next time.