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The Kurds will vote, but uneasiness is palpable
28/01/2005   Special to The Daily Star
By Ali Ezzatyar
Special to The Daily Star
Saturday, January 29, 2005

In an increasingly unstable Iraq barreling toward long-awaited national elections tomorrow, many old concerns remain on the minds of Kurds.

Fundamental issues that have traditionally plagued the Kurdish role in the Iraqi polity will be articulated through the ballot, once and for all.

The general sentiment on the streets of Kurdistan is uneasy. The perceived predicament there is one that even democracy cannot remedy.

How do the Kurds maintain the rights of a majority in a country where they are a minority? It is the Kurdish commitment to the freedoms obtained in the early 1990s that could make the post-election consequences sticky, to say the least. Moreover, talk of a referendum on the future of the Kurdish areas is still widespread in a northern Iraq bracing itself for the worse.

With respect to attitudes toward the elections - ranging from violent opposition to naive optimism - the Kurds fall somewhere in the middle.

Kurdish party bosses made it clear in recent months that they did not believe circumstances were ideal for elections to take place now. The leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party, Massoud Barzani, went so far as to suggest that the elections might as well not be held under present conditions. This was due to fear that the results would be deemed largely illegitimate, with far-reaching consequences for all the parties involved in Iraq.

However, the Kurds, realizing that their leverage is currently at near maximum effectiveness even as the Sunni boycott and instability in the rest of Iraq has undermined Arab efficacy, also never contemplated discounting themselves from the election process.

Concern over the fate of Kirkuk continued to be a central theme in Kurdish rhetoric in the run-up to elections. The Kurdistan Regional Government argues that the worst potential outcome of the poll would be a disadvantageous result in the volatile oil-rich province. The logic of the argument is rooted in what the Kurds view as inadequate implementation of the Transitional Administrative Law, or interim Constitution, which calls for the full repatriation of Kurds in Kirkuk. With demographics less conducive to a Kurdish victory than they could be, the Kurds have petitioned to delay elections in Kirkuk until a later time. Mounting violence and intimidation by anti-Kurdish groups suspected of being supported by Turkey are further cited in this argument.

For the Kurds, the voting in Kirkuk would be most unfortunate if it were to reflect the demographic balance imposed by Saddam Husseinís settling of large numbers of Arabs in the province. Since there are no reliable population figures for Kirkuk, one cannot be sure about whether Kurdish fears are legitimate. Without doubt, however, there would be much to lose in an electoral shakeup since Kirkukís provincial government is currently dominated by Kurds.

While participation in the elections will not be as impressive as U.S. officials have predicted, the Kurds do believe that they should vote according to their utmost potential. Funding has been allocated in the north for the purpose of ensuring a high turnout, as well as educating the population on voting nuances. Kurdish estimates are that as much as 80 percent of the Kurdish population could turn out on Sunday. These figures are similar to those offered by Shiite groups in the south when predicting their communityís participation. In stark contrast, provinces like Al-Anbar in predominantly Sunni Arab regions could see as few as 10 percent of the population turning out to vote.
Even with a high Kurdish turnout expected, there is realization among Kurdish leaders that the ceiling of democracy is uneasily low for the Kurds. It is for this reason that they continue to be engaged in a game of diplomacy that may prove as influential in shaping the future Iraqi state as the elections. Aside from the Kurdsí customary cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition, and the northís being the only truly stable and reliable Iraqi region in the eyes of the Americans, the Kurds have also been forging long-term alliances with Shiite parties. Indeed, in December of this year a second general election is to take place, and the Kurds regard this as more significant than the Sunday elections because of its potential to impose a permanent authority on Iraq.

As a result, Kurdish rhetoric of late has been sympathetic to the inevitable Shiite domination of the future Iraqi parliament. There is a realization within the Kurdish camp that the conflict of interests with Iraqi Shiite groups is minimal, as opposed to Sunni groups. Strategically, Kurds are positioning themselves to influence Shiite decision-making after the elections to their own benefit. This will include defining the level to which Kurds can control resources in Kirkuk and elsewhere in northern Iraq, the level of autonomy the north will enjoy, and the nature of power- sharing between the north and the rest of Iraq.

Residents of northern Iraq are also still hopeful that something will come of the millions of signatures on a petition calling for a referendum on the Kurdsí future. While party leaders have not authorized an official referendum this weekend, they did approve a plan to allow separate voting tents to be established near voting stations in northern Iraq for voters to make their opinion known on the choices that might be offered in a referendum. These range from dissolution of the Kurdistan Regional Government and full embrace of central Iraqi authority to Kurdish autonomy inside Iraq to the establishment of an independent Kurdistan.

While the results of this vote will be unofficial, they will also be highly significant, allowing the Kurdish leadership to use them as a bargaining chip in negotiations with a post-election authority.

The Kurds may have a good deal to lose in the election tomorrow, but they will not torpedo the process. There is a lot to say for continued good relations with the U.S. as well as for an understanding with the dominant Shiite forces. The Kurds, in turn, are banking on these two relationships to get more than what a permanent Iraqi structure is likely to offer them.

Still, the inevitability that they will get less than what they desire will be delayed by the elections, which, in the short term, will do little or nothing to change the life of ordinary Kurds in the north. It is the galvanizing effect that the elections will have on more hostile groups, such as the insurgents, that will in fact influence both the conditions of the future Iraqi state and continued cooperation and calm in Kurdistan.

Ali Ezzatyar is a doctoral candidate in law at the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR

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