Middle East

Q&A: Elections in Iraqi Kurdistan

An Iraqi Kurdish man walks past electoral campaign posters in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The five main parties are expected to dominate the 111-seat parliament

Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region goes to the polls on Saturday to elect a new parliament.

This is the fourth parliamentary polls since Iraqi Kurds established the region in Irbil, Sulaimaniya and Dahuk provinces in 1991.

Many believe that this election could change the region's political landscape, partly because for the first time since 1992 the main contenders are taking part individually in the race.

This raises the question of whether the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) can retain their control over the Kurdistan Region for a third successive decade.

While the five main regional parties are expected to dominate the 111-seat parliament, it is hard to say which will come out on top.

Who are the main players?

Image copyright KDP's Kurdistan TV
Image caption Massoud Barzani's KDP has traditionally been strong in Dahuk and Irbil provinces

The ruling parties - Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani's KDP and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's PUK - are taking part separately for the first time. They won 59 seats in the last election.

The largest opposition party, the Change Movement (CM) or Gorran, led by veteran politician Nawshirwan Mustafa, hopes to build on its 2009 debut, when it secured 25 seats.

The region's two main Islamist parties, the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Kurdistan Islamic Group, will find out their following after taking part with two secular parties last time. They expect to improve on their current respective totals of six and four seats.

In the absence of reliable opinion polls, it is impossible to make detailed predictions, but no single party is expected to win more than 50% of the vote.

What are the main issues?

Image copyright Sbay website
Image caption Nawshirwan Mustafa's Change Movement is challenging the dominance of the PUK and KDP

One of the hardest matters in this election is sorting the rhetoric from the policies. Themes such as fighting corruption, improving basic services, investing in key sectors, and reforming bureaucracy appear in the manifestos of all the main parties.

However, the build-up to the election was overshadowed by claims that the electoral roll was fraudulent. It was alleged that the roll included the names of more than 100,000 dead people and that duplicate names (mostly in Irbil and Dahuk) had also not been removed.

This led to criticism of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) by sections of the private media, the PUK and the opposition parties. The IHEC played down the claims and warned that a comprehensive review of the electoral roll would delay the vote.

Because of this controversial issue, there were doubts the election could go ahead until campaigning started.

What might change?

Image copyright PUK's Gali Kurdistan TV
Image caption Campaigning has been hard in Sulaimaniya, with reports of clashes between rival supporters

This election has the potential to change the political map, and the 21-year KDP-PUK duopoly is under threat.

The KDP and the PUK ran on joint tickets in the last two elections and ruled through a coalition government over the past eight years. This was part of a wider power-sharing arrangement, according to which the parties divided top posts both in the Kurdistan Region and in Baghdad.

This agreement, signed in 2007, assumed both parties had a near-equal following and therefore sought to divide top posts equally between them. This was based on the results of the first and last elections they contested separately - the 1992 parliamentary and the 2005 provincial elections.

However, this time the PUK is facing one of the toughest tests in its history, with President Talabani having been out of the political spotlight since December following a reported stroke.

The future of the PUK's pact with the KDP rests on how well it does in the election. Anything less than second and its prospects could be very different.

The CM, led by former PUK deputy leader Nawshirwan Mustafa, is eyeing the same prized second spot as a minimum and has claimed that it could match the PUK, or even the KDP, in a fair election. The CM has made inroads in the PUK's traditional heartland of Sulaimaniya.

Even if the KDP - which has traditionally been strong in Dahuk and Irbil - does well, it will likely need the backing of another major party to form a stable government.

This election will also be an important barometer for November's provincial elections - the first to be held in the Kurdistan Region for eight years.

Campaigning has been particularly hard in Sulaimaniya, with reports of clashes between PUK and CM supporters.

How does the electoral system work?

The Kurdistan Parliament has 111 seats. Eleven seats are allocated for the minorities - five for the Turkmen, five for the Assyrians, and one for Armenians.

The entire Kurdistan Region is considered one constituency. Voters select a list and an individual candidate within a list. Thirty-one parties, with a total of 1,139 candidates, have registered.

Who is eligible to vote?

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption About 35% of registered voters are in Irbil province

Around 2.8 million people are eligible to vote. About 43% of them live in Sulaimaniya, 35% in Erbil and 22% in Dahuk.

Kurds living in ethnically disputed areas in neighbouring regions of Kirkuk, Diyala and Ninawa provinces are not qualified to vote. There will be no polling centres abroad.

Who will observe the vote?

Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission will oversee the vote, but its officials have said that international monitors will also be present.

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