Ahmed Ali has been interested in politics since his university days. He follows the news closely and discusses the issues of the day with his friends. He had been looking forward to this year’s regional elections, but they were not held on October 1 as planned.
Ali, who works as a taxi driver in Sulaimaniyah, told Peregraf that he was disappointed because he still believes elections can yield progress.
"If all elections are held on time and people's votes are respected, there will certainly be significant changes after the election," he said, even while conceding that past elections had "not done much for people's lives."
Many of his friends disagree with his enthusiasm and do not vote.
"I keep telling them: whether we go or not, the 111 seats in parliament will still be filled," Ali said, arguing that the ruling parties will exploit their apathy.
Instead of passing legislation to hold elections, the members of the Kurdistan Parliament voted on October 9 to extend their term until the end of 2023.
Eighty lawmakers from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Change Movement (Gorran), and those who hold seats reserved for ethnic and religious minorities voted to pass the legislation.
During the October 9 session, lawmakers from the opposition New Generation Movement whistled and banged their desks to show their displeasure.
"I whistled because what happened in parliament was offensive to democracy," said New Generation MP Muzhda Mahmood.
"How can the legal people in parliament tell people to abide by the law while violating the laws themselves?," she added rhetorically.
Several disgruntled Gorran MPs and those from Islamist parties boycotted the session entirely.
Delays and extensions for 30 years
No regional elections have been held on time since the first legislative elections in the Kurdistan Region on May 19, 1992. Even if delays and extensions are not unusual in the Region, they are hardly a sign of a healthy democracy.
The current group of MPs are the fifth set of lawmakers elected to the legislature. But if elections had happened quadrennially per the law, they would be the eighth.
The first legislature, which was known then as the Kurdistan Assembly, was supposed to go back to the people for new elections in 1995, but the Kurdish Civil War between the KDP and the PUK intervened and polls were never held.
Instead, voters in the Kurdistan Region had to wait thirteen years until the post-Ba’athist period for new elections. The newly renamed Kurdistan Parliament began its work again on June 4, 2005.
The so-called second parliament was due to end its term in June 2009, but was extended by two months and seventeen days until August 20. The third parliament was extended by a similar period of time, from August until November 6, 2013.
The fourth parliament’s term was defined by constitutional disagreements between the KDP and Gorran. Lawmakers did not even meet for two years between 2015 and 2017. Once it resumed work, its mandate was extended for a further year in the chaotic aftermath of the Kurdistan Region Independence Referendum. Its rocky term ended on November 6, 2018.
The members of the current fifth parliament have now taken it on themselves to extend their own mandate until the end of 2023, by which time elections theoretically must be held.
Local and international pressure
The current impasse is the result of disagreements between the KDP and the PUK. Each wants an electoral system that maximizes benefits for their own party.
At specific issue are voter lists, the number of electoral districts, the seats reserved for the minorities, and the make-up of the electoral commission. Despite strong local and international pressure to resolve their differences, the ruling parties are unwilling to compromise their respective positions on these points.
Perhaps the stickiest issue of the four is the minority MPs. Out of a total 111 seats in the Kurdistan Parliament, five are reserved for Turkmens, five for Christians, and one for an Armenian. Critics view these eleven seats as de-facto KDP, based on how the lawmakers are elected and voting behavior in the legislature.
The PUK and all other parties want the arrangement to be reformed in order to reduce the KDP’s influence, but have not put forward a concrete plan. KDP officials dodge the question and counter that robust minority representation is important and that the eleven seats should stay as currently established.
From a general public policy perspective, it is important to have a working legislature, but the Kurdistan Parliament plays a key role in renewing the mandate of the Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission, which will run any future regional election.
The New Generation Movement proposed a solution where parliament suspends its work and an independent administrator is brought in to hold elections as soon as possible.
"If we really want to do it, we can hold elections in a short time," argued Kawa Abdulqadir, head of the New Generation caucus.
The proposal attracted scant support. Only the parties’ three remaining MPs voted in favor.
"Anyone who stays in parliament after November 6 and receives a salary should be ashamed of themselves," Abdulqadir said.
Opposition parties and other critics allege that the KDP and the PUK simply do not want to face the people. They question if the ruling parties could not resolve their differences during numerous meetings over the past year, some brokered by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), why will they do so now?
"Extending the term of parliament carries one interpretation: the forces of the PUK, the KDP and Gorran are afraid of elections and have a little public support," said Aram Jamal, an election expert at the Kurdish Institute for Elections.
Sherko Jawdat, head of the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) caucus, said before the vote that "the PUK, the KDP and Gorran have agreed not to listen to the suffering of the people and the threats to the Region as an entity."
He added that the extension was "undoubtedly…only for the sake of narrow interests, money, and posts."
Members of the international community have also criticized the decision to delay elections.
UNAMI chief Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert told the UN Security Council on October 3 that "the political fallout of not conducting timely Kurdistan Region parliamentary elections, of not properly managing public expectations, of neglecting basic democratic principles, will bear a high cost."
"And if that were to happen, it would not be for lack of warning," she added.
Hennis-Plasschaert also pointedly argued that the primary reason for the delay was disagreements between the ruling parties.
"The ‘yellow and green’ divide as the single most disruptive factor impeding progress," she said, referring to the colors affiliated with the KDP and the PUK respectively.