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Evolving democracy in Kurdistan

By Bashdar Ismaeel - posted Thursday, 30 April 2009

From fighting in the mountains to running in parliament, fundamental achievements have been made since 1991 but democracy is still bogged by changing times, factional alliances and increasing expectations of the people.

To state that 1991 was a unique milestone in Kurdish history is perhaps the understatement of the century, for the Kurds, quite literally.

The Kurds have suffered immeasurably under authoritarian Arab rule since the creation of the artificial state of Iraq. Finally free from the totalitarian grip of Saddam Hussein after immense sacrifice, Kurds were now able to decide their own future; to have self-determination which they had been deprived of for so long.


And what better way to showcase your credentials for statehood and self-rule than show the world and your nemesis in the region that you are capable of democracy and a way of governance that would not only be unique to Kurdistan, as it would be a first, but could also serve as a benchmark for the rest of region.

Sometimes the best way to highlight where your enemies fail is to implement it yourself. Kurds have tried hard to implement a system of tolerance to other religions and ethnicities, something that they themselves have not received. Where their democratic liberties have been deprived, they have chosen to win back their lost rights - such the city of Kirkuk - in a democratic manner than by using the same force that their enemies would have used on them.

Iraqi Kurdistan legislative elections of 1992

On May 19, 1992, history was made when the first ever elections were successfully held in Iraqi Kurdistan. For the first time, the Kurdish people could choose who they voted for: elections were made to the Kurdistan National Assembly (KNA), the parliament of the Kurdistan Region. It was not only the first ever elections in Kurdistan, but was also the first free and fair parliamentary elections in Iraq itself.

One hundred and five seats were made available in the KNA with five seats reserved for the Assyrian community. The 7 per cent threshold that political parties had to achieve ensured that the seats were contested between the two main parties in Kurdistan: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led alliance. This system naturally alienated some parties such as the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (who achieved just more than 5 per cent of the vote), and this later contributed to difficulties with Islamists in later years.

Though the KDP won 51 seats and the PUK alliance 49 seats, it was agreed to share power 50-50. The first law was passed by the assembly a few months later, establishing it as the region's legislature.

The elections were clearly a monumental achievement for a region that had fought hard to see such an elusive day, and were well commended by a number of international observers.


However, for all the early promise, democracy in Kurdistan fast displayed a number of fundamental flaws. The infant roots of democracy in the region were soon haunted by short-lived gains.

Civil war and the stalling of democracy

The euphoria around the recently won freedoms and the historical milestone of democratic elections soon turned sour. A number of differences soon resulted in perhaps one of the most unforgettable events in Kurdish history, as a bloody civil war between the PDK and PUK Peshmerga forces raged between 1994 and1997.

In the period around the civil war, and the ensuing years after it, democracy suffered a major setback in Kurdistan. The deep rifts between Massaud Barzani, who narrowly won the presidential elections that were conjointly held in 1992, and Jalal Talabani, resulted in control of Erbil changing hands between both sides on a number of occasions.

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First published in the Kurdish Globe on March 28, 2009.

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About the Author

Bashdar Pusho Ismaeel is a London-based freelance writer and analyst, whose primary focus and expertise is on the Kurds, Iraq and Middle Eastern current affairs. The main focus of his writing is to promote peace, justice and increase awareness of the diversity, suffering and at times explosive mix in Iraq and the Middle East.

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