Mobilizing voters using ethnic rhetoric is an easy way to gain popularity in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk. And the parties representing the district’s three main ethnic groups – the Kurds, the Arabs and the Turkmens – don’t just want votes, they have a point to prove: They also want to indicate how big a part they make up of the local population. This is because Kirkuk is still one of Iraq’s disputed territories. That is, Iraq says it belongs to the country but the Kurds say it belongs to them and should be part of their semi-autonomous region. One of the ways of resolving this dispute would be to take a census. If there are more Kurds living here, then the Kurds have more of a claim on the area – and vice versa.
The three different political groups in Kirkuk are headed by politicians who have not been afraid to talk tough and argue with one another, either in the media or in person. Over the past four years in Baghdad they clashed frequently, about issues such as the local security forces and the appropriate administration of Kirkuk.
Increasingly it is becoming clear that these elections will be more important, and possibly more dangerous, than the last ones in Kirkuk.
Those antipathies are now manifest on the street. There is an organized campaign in the city where the supporters of each of the three different groups go around ripping up the campaign posters of the other groups. The leaders of the different ethnic blocks continuously play on the ethnic sensibilities.
During a visit to the town of Hawija, Arab leader Mohammed Tamim kicked off his campaign by saying that his alliance needed to win many votes in order to “surprise” the competition. Tamim is well known for his inflammatory statements directed at other ethnic groups in the area, especially attacks on Kurdish politicians in Kirkuk.
During a rally attended by thousands of his supporters, Arshad al-Salihi, a senior Turkmen politician in Kirkuk and leader of the biggest Turkmen party, said his re-election as an MP was not enough. He wanted all Turkmen to support him to demonstrate the power of local Turkmens to the other two ethnic groups.
The only Kirkuk politician not to play the ethnic card quite so dramatically was Ribwar Taha, who heads the most popular Kurdish party in the area, the Patriotic Union Of Kurdistan, or PUK. He called upon voters of all ethnicities to choose him because, he said, he would fight in the Iraqi parliament for all the people of Kirkuk, not just one ethnicity.
Tamim told NIQASH that a lot of the ethnicity-related rhetoric was just about election campaigns. “In the end every candidate wants the most votes they can get,” he explained. “But this battle between the leaders of the different blocks is a campaign fight. After the elections are over they could well begin to work together again.”
Al-Salihi was less conciliatory. “We cannot agree to anything that goes against the interests of our people,” he told NIQASH. “That is why when a certain Kurdish group became hostile towards the Turkmens, our response was strong. That doesn’t mean we did that for the votes. It was our duty and we lived up to that duty.”
Additionally al-Salihi believes that things have changed and that the different groups will be forced to work differently together in the future.
There is a possibility that things will change in Kirkuk after May 12, the day of the elections. At the last elections, Iraqi Kurdish politicians won the majority of the 12 seats available to Kirkuk in Baghdad – they got eight out of 12 seats, with the remaining four split between the area’s Arabs and the Turkmens. However since late October 2017, when the ill-fated Kurdish referendum on independence saw the balance of power change dramatically in the Kirkuk area, the outcome is no longer assured for the Kurds here.
Increasingly it is becoming clear that these elections will be more important, and possibly more dangerous, than the last set of elections in Kirkuk in 2014.
The fact that politicians are exploiting existing ethnic tensions worries a lot of locals in Kirkuk. They fear that political supporters could go from ripping up posters to fighting in the streets.
“Kirkuk will be stable and safe on election day,” Saad Maan, the Iraqi army officer in charge of counter-terrorism forces in Kirkuk, stated late last month. Together with the local police and election authorities, Maan announced the plan for security for polling day on April 26.
Previously the Iraqi Kurdish military were in charge here and recently there has been criticism that the Arab forces, from elsewhere in the country, don’t have the same intelligence and local knowledge to carry out the mission.
Vehicles will not be allowed into the city and transport will be provided for locals to go to voting centres. “Iraqi army aircraft will also be on duty above the city,” Maan said.