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Was Iraq’s recent election a democratic success? Depends whom you ask.

- May 23, 2018
A volunteer points out the place where a displaced woman from Sinjar can cast her vote in the parliamentary elections at a polling site in a camp for displaced people outside Irbil, Iraq, on May 12. (Bram Janssen/AP)

On May 12, Iraq held a remarkably successful and violence-free national election. A coalition of Shiite Islamists and communists led by Moqtada al-Sadr, running on a reform agenda, won the largest number of seats in the new parliament. Sitting Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s coalition placed third.

While the results have generated considerable optimism, allegations of widespread electoral fraud have also emerged in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region and Kirkuk. There have been numerous calls to address and investigate these claims, including from the U.N. Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI).

In these areas, results favored two long-dominant parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). New parties and challengers widely expected to do well did not. These opposition parties claim to have faced systematic vote rigging. Combined with the low turnout, their disputes could cast doubts on the legitimacy of the election, with serious ramifications.

Why the Kurdish area results were surprising.

A fiscal crisis, allegations of corruption and nepotism and the fallout from last September’s independence referendum, including the loss of Kirkuk, were all expected to cost the region’s two dominant parties votes. Instead, the two parties more or less maintained their number of seats, as the KDP kept all of its 25 seats in the national parliament and the PUK lost only three, dropping from 21 to 18.

Opposition parties — which had been expected to do well — fared relatively poorly. Former senior PUK official Barham Salih’s new Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ) won only two seats. Gorran, a still-popular opposition party founded in 2009, lost four seats, dropping from nine to five. The opposition Kurdistan Islamic Group lost one. New Generation (NG), a new protest party aligned with the PKK, received four.

What happened?

These results can be partially explained by voter apathy, as only 40 to 50 percent of citizens voted in the Iraqi Kurdish region, a big drop from around 70 percent in 2014 and 2010. Low turnout typically favors ruling parties with their extensive patronage networks and loyal bases. Voters likely to support opposition parties made up the bulk of the no-shows, voting with their feet rather than their ballots.

The opposition parties also faced a variety of problems. New protest parties such as CDJ and NG split Gorran’s formerly exclusive hold on the opposition vote. The Change movement has struggled to implement their reform agenda in the face of the KDP-PUK power domination over the years, leaving some supporters disillusioned. The movement also recently lost its popular founder and leader. And while Salih — as a former Iraqi deputy prime minister and former KRG prime minister — is a seasoned leader, his party was brand-new, born only a few months before the elections in August 2017 and yet untested.

Why the suspicions of fraud?

A growing number of Kurds are pointing out irregularities not explained by voter turnout alone. Gorran votes plunged a baffling amount, reduced to less than half in their base of Sulaimaniya, as well as in Irbil and other areas where it was expected to perform far better. Pre-election polling gave Salih’s CDJ eight to 10 seats, but they came out with two. The results showed CDJ receiving more votes in Irbil than it did in its base of Sulaymaniyah, where it came in sixth. Popular candidates on the list received few votes.

The PUK was generally expected to lose seats in Kirkuk, especially after yielding the city to Iraqi forces last October. But they maintained their six in the disputed city and gained two in Sulaymaniyah, despite widespread predictions of major losses. The party’s vote count even tripled in Halabja, where it has been unpopular for years. Similar, though less dramatic trends were reported in Ranya and around Sulaymaniyah. In Dahuk, where the PDK had lost some support since the referendum, it maintained 10 seats.

Opposition parties also claim to have evidence of widespread irregularities related to the electronic balloting system. They point to a pattern that puts all parties’ voting tallies at the same percentage in each station and center where a particular machine was used. In Kirkuk, the same candidates received exactly the same number of votes at multiple voting stations. While the data are not yet publicly available, reports are circulating about discrepancies between manual and electronic tallies.

In multiple stations where candidates and families voted, there are no recorded votes for them. In my research, I also found multiple cases of ballots for candidates who did not exist. There is evidence of forged ID cards in the hundreds of thousands. These are all typical warning signs of electoral fraud. And with a history of fraud in past elections, such warning signs are taken seriously by many Kurds.

Why does it matter?

International officials may be tempted to dismiss these allegations as just sour grapes from parties that expected to do well and are disappointed. There is mounting pressure for the challengers to get over it and move on, in the interest of government formation. But ignoring their claims could prove dangerous for stability.

Kurdish opposition parties are filing court complaints to try to force an investigation, a recount and, if necessary, new elections. This has met with pushback. A member of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), Saad Kakeyi from Gorran, held a news conference criticizing the commission for not addressing Kurdish complaints and released more data on a Saturday-night news program. He has been temporarily removed from IHEC. UNAMI has advised IHEC to investigate.

The duopoly of Iraqi Kurdistan’s two ruling parties may appear secure. But the low voter turnout reflects a population in transition, as citizens disengage from civic politics. Their frustration is especially acute after the major losses following the referendum. Public sector employees haven’t been consistently paid for three years, and demonstrators in Sulaymaniyah and Irbil faced violent crackdowns in December and March.

After this widely contested election, some Kurds will undoubtedly retreat further from civic engagement to focus on day-to-day economic survival. But others may resist and revolt, demanding change and looking for alternatives to the ballot box they see as fraudulent. Many say they will never vote again; others that force is the only way to bring change.

Fair and peaceful transitions of power reinforce the legitimacy of democratic systems that guarantee stability. If a significant number of residents continue to think that their voices are not being heard or represented, the region may witness unrest. The longer-term risk is that the population will turn against Kurdish political institutions as a whole.

Christine McCaffray van den Toorn is a Sulaiman-based researcher who has lived and worked in Iraq for the past nine years. You can follow her @vandentoorn.