The Iraqi Elections

March 04, 2010
by James F. Pontuso, Patterson Professor of Government & Foreign Affairs

Jim PontusoThe Iraqi election campaign is going on now.  Campaigning consists of long lines of overcrowded cars, trucks, and vans riding up and down the main street, right near my apartment, with flags waving and horns tooting.  That’s about it; vote for me, I toot loudly.  The campaigners seem to be particularly intent on gaining “the American vote,” at least they get very excited when I wave at them.  They take video of the campaign-parades and show them on TV – for hours.  Vote for me, I toot loudly on TV. 

The politics is weird, but kind of fun.

Of course, that is only the surface.

The Erbil-based party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani, the current president of the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq, will probably win the most votes in Kurdish Iraq.  The political leader in Sulaimania – the city where I live – is Jalal Talabani, who is president of all of Iraq.  Both parties have strongly entrenched political organizations.  Talabani’s party (PUK) does most of the tooting in my neighborhood.  Both Barzani (63) and Talabani (77) are Kurdish heroes because of their guerilla campaigns against Saddam Hussein.  They also fought each other in the 1990s for dominance of the Kurdish region.  Talabani is a tough guy; Barzani is a very tough guy.  Thankfully they are now united in a party coalition.

The established parties are opposed by a new movement that picked up its slogan from the 2008 American presidential campaign, calling itself Gorran or “change list.”  Iraq has proportional representation in its parliament so a list of candidates runs.  Gorran wants to rid the government of corruption – or a cynic might say – get some spoils for their members. Gorran seems to be popular with many of my students who are tired of the old ways and impatient to bring their part of the world into the global community; they want change.  Some local politicos tell me that upstart Gorran might actually win in Sulaimania.

As far as I can tell there are no major Iraqi national parties.  People vote strictly along ethnic lines, perhaps in this region for good reason.  Kurds and Arabs living in Iraq speak a different political language – probably because they literally speak different languages.  Kurds all learn Arabic in order to understand the Koran, but their native tongue is Kurdish, an Indo-European language closely related to Farsi – the major dialect in Iran.

Kurds were terribly oppressed by Saddam who feared their-long standing dream of political independence.  His most savage act of cruelty occurred in Halabja.  In 1988, he ordered a poison gas attack on the civilian population of the town, killing 2500 and injuring three times that number.

In a perfect Kurdish world there would be a free and independent Kurdistan, a country promised to them after WW I by the British when they carved out the “country” of Iraq from the remnants of the Ottoman Empire.  Kurds are very proud of their “country,” but they have very little sense of being Iraqi.  The differences between Arabs and Kurds can be seen in their attitudes toward the U.S.  Arabs call the American incursion into Iraq, “the occupation,” Kurds call it “removing the previous regime.”

I watch local television and there has not been even one mention of Iraq Prime Minister Nouri Kamil Mohammed Hasan al-Maliki’s coalition party.  Maliki has made overtures to Kurdish voters, but he doesn’t expect to get many Kurd votes.  Rather, when all the votes are counted, he hopes to form a governing coalition with the Kurdish parties and remain prime minister.

The showdown will come over Kirkuk, where there is lots of oil, where – according to Kirkuk’s Kurdish chief of police – Saddam “spilled a river of Kurdish blood,” where Arabs now claim to be intimated by local Kurdish police, and where both sides feel like victims. Passions run high over control of Kirkuk.

The nightmare scenario could come if differences over Kirkuk cannot be resolved and the Kurds opt for independence.  The Iraqi army might then attempt to move into Kirkuk where it will face fierce opposition from the Kurdish Peshmerga.  I see the Peshmerga every day; my money is on them, but it won’t be pretty.

God only knows what Iran and Turkey will do if war breaks out.  Both countries have large Kurdish minorities who every so often have made noises about joining a “greater Kurdistan.” Iran and Turkey have fiercely suppressed Kurdish independence movements, with much loss of life on both sides.

The first sight of the Kurdish national flag flying over Sulaimania city hall would give President Obama a serious migraine which is why he will likely keep a substantial U.S. Army presence near Kirkuk even after the American “withdrawal” from Iraq.

Despite differences between Arabs and Kurds, there is hope for compromise.  One of the clearest voices of reason belongs to my boss, Barham Salih (50).  Barham is the founder, guiding force, and chairman of the board of trustees of the American University of Iraq – Sulaimani where I teach.  He is also prime minister of the Kurdish regional government. Barham is a leader of PUK and part of the Barzani-Talabani coalition. Unlike the older leaders he was not a military hero.  He was what we would call a dissident.  At age 19 he was arrested by Baathist security forces for his association with the Kurdish national movement, sent to prison, and tortured.  After his release he was constantly harassed and finally fled to Britain, where he received a BS and finally a PhD.

Despite his proud insistence on Kurdish rights, Barham argues that neither side truly wants a conflict over Kirkuk, making the only alternative conciliation.  “Kurds and Arabs have pushed the envelope before,” he says, “but they have always stepped back from confrontation.”

As James Madison teaches us, moderation and compromise are essential elements of good governance.  Sadly, they are lousy campaign strategies.  Elections are about energizing voters, getting them excited about candidates and parties.  Deliberation and good judgment are often drowned out by appeals to passion, fear, or interest.

If Gorran beats PUK in Sulaimania, one of the casualties may be Barham.  But even then, all may not be lost.  Gorran leaders say they will not necessarily vote as a Kurdish block with KDP in the Iraqi parliament.  If Gorran gains a sizable number of seats and follows through with that promise, its influence will be greatly increased if it reaches across ethnic lines and finds common ground with Iraqi-Arab parties.  To become part of the governing majority, Gorran will necessarily have to be moderate and conciliatory.  Perhaps there will be a chance that the blessings of Madison’s politics – competent, moderate, and limited government – can come to this troubled land.

For a more detailed analysis of the Iraqi election see my colleague, Denise Natali’s post at