This Democracy Could Be Paper-Thin

ARBIL, Northern Iraq, (IPS) – Many Kurds in Northern Iraq are facing new threats – and they do not come from masked Arab terrorists. They come from the two main Kurdish parties doing all they can to gain strength in the election Sunday, independent local journalists and opposition politicians say.

Kurds are voting for the National Assembly in Baghdad where the two parties have come together in a united front, and also for the local government where the two parties are contesting against one another.

Local control is at present split between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani.

“This talk of democracy is just paint,” says Zirak Abdullah, managing editor at the Arbil office of the independent Kurdish weekly Hawlati. “The talk of democracy is just on the surface.. The real action is under the table.”

That is where some muscle is evident. Sporadic incidents of voter intimidation have been reported over the past few days. On Thursday evening Kurds carrying Kalashnikovs blindfolded and beat up three campaign workers of the opposition Kurdistan Islamic Union.

“Their faces were smashed in,” says Asou Hamid, leading journalist at the Islamic Union’s TV station. “They were left on the ground with their blindfolds on. They never got a good look at their attackers..”

Hamid says he cannot be sure who was behind the attack, but he believes it was instigated by members of the party in power – even if it was not specifically ordered by party leaders.

The same night Hamid says a half dozen Kurdish men armed with automatic rifles tore down every poster of his group on the main street opposite their party office.

Night guards at Islamic Union TV told IPS they saw the vandalism, but refused to give any details other than the fact that the vandals were armed, and wearing civilian clothes.

“We are just at the beginning of the democratic process here,” Hamid says. “Sometimes the mentality of the people doesn’t allow them to accept that some people have other ideas.”

The ruling Kurdish parties deny any role in the oppression. “This election is about freedom and democracy for the Kurdish people,” says Ziraj Ali, chief of the PUK in Arbil. “Whatever the will of the people is, it will prevail.”

Ziraj Ali maintains this election is a big step towards democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan because there will be competition in local elections in Northern Iraq’s three governorates – Dohuk, Arbil, and Suleymania. Dohuk and Arbil are at present controlled by the KDP and Suleymania by the PUK. Few expect that to change after the election.

“If you go to one of these main parties and sit in front of them as a foreign journalist, of course he will talk about democracy,” says Hawlati’s Abdullah. “But that same man who talked to you, if he’s talking to someone else will concede that there will be no change of power in Arbil.”

These will be the second local elections in Iraqi Kurdistan. In 2000 the KDP won every seat in Dohuk and Arbil, and the PUK won every seat in Suleymania.

The election is complicated by the lack of any independent election monitors, not only in Kurdistan but in the whole of Iraq. Due to the difficult security situation all international election monitors will be based in Amman, Jordan, a day’s drive away.

The International Mission for Iraqi Elections led by Canada’s chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley is incredibly understaffed. It comprises only about 20 election experts from Australia, Bangladesh, Britain, Canada, Ghana, Hungary, Indonesia, Mexico, Panama and Yemen. That is a lot less than the 2,400 observers who watched the recent run-off election in Ukraine.

Still, elections in Northern Iraq are likely to see a higher turnout than in the center and south. Unlike the rest of Iraq, Kurdistan is a relatively safe place and Kurds are excited they can vote for a united Kurdish slate. That slate stands for Kurdish autonomy in the North and Kurdish domination of the oil-rich city Kirkuk, which currently lies outside of the domain of the Kurdistan regional government.