To see what Iraq will look like after January 30, just look north: Here in Kurdistan, the election is already over, even before anyone has cast a ballot. The two ruling parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), have carved out most of the seats in Kurdistan's regional parliament. And, in the upcoming national election, most people here will vote for the two partners' combined slate; few have even heard of the independent tickets. "The only thing I know is that the election is between ethnic groups like Kurds and Arabs," says Dashne Khaled, an 18-year-old Kurd from the northern city of Irbil, which is controlled by Massoud Barzani's KDP. "So, if you're a Kurd, you vote for the Kurds, and if you're an Arab, you vote for the Arabs." And, in the PUK-controlled slice of Kurdistan, an old woman declares her loyalty to "Uncle Jalal," PUK leader Jalal Talabani, with an eerie echo of Saddam Hussein's old campaign slogan. Throwing her hands heavenward, she intones, "With my fingers, with my hands, with my whole body, I will vote for you, Talabani!"
Welcome to free Kurdistan, supposedly a thriving democracy in northern Iraq. According to The Washington Post, Iraq's Kurdish region is a "flourishing quasi-state" with "democratic elections and institutions." Other major U.S. media offer similar assessments, and Kurdish party leaders like to tell foreign journalists that their region can be a model for the rest of Iraq. They're right--but it's hardly a positive example: In fact, the region is actually a warning to the rest of Iraq. Kurdistan is a case study in what happens when nationalist political parties consolidate too much power, depriving citizens of what they really want--which, in Kurdistan, is independence.
IN EARLY DECEMBER, the two Kurdish parties announced that they would run together for the national assembly and for the autonomous Kurdish parliament. Together, they formed a unified, unbeatable ticket--giving Kurds about as much choice as if, in last year's presidential election, George W. Bush had decided to merge with the Democrats and make John Kerry his vice president.
As a result, instead of making Kurdistan more democratic, the upcoming national elections are cementing the rule of the dominant parties here--a trend being repeated across Iraq. "Kurds, when they go to vote on January 30, are not going to vote for whoever protects their interests," says Hiwa Osman, a Kurdish political analyst. "They're going to vote for whoever is powerful enough to protect them from Arabs. Shiites are not going to vote for whoever has good governance--they are going to vote for whoever can protect them from the Sunnis."
Kurdistan is still recovering from its last election, held in 1992, when the region was protected from Saddam by a U.S. no-fly zone. After smallerparties were disqualified, the PUK and the KDP both claimed victory, and, in 1996, their simmering hostilities erupted into a full-blown civil war. In the next two elections, for municipal and student body governments, the two parties brutally suppressed any other groups. University students campaigning for Islamic parties were told bluntly by their professors--themselves installed by hacks from the two major parties--to back off or flunk their exams. "The tactics were quite ruthless. They ranged from arbitrary detentions of candidates for several days to beatings--quite severe beatings--of people planning to run against them," says Christoph Wilcke, a Kurdistan analyst for the International Crisis Group, adding dryly that support forparties other than the PUK and the KDP "might be broader than what is apparent."
Today, in fact, Kurdistan resembles a Soviet satellite state. Intelligence agents lurk everywhere, and those who threaten party power may find themselves languishing in prison. Everything is taxed. Party-run satellite channels broadcast endless footage of the party leaders and their press conferences. Independent candidates are virtually unknown. And, if you want a job, from hotel clerk to college professor, you would do well to join your local ruling party. In fact, there are few democratic institutions in Kurdistan. Even the 105-member Kurdish parliament is little more than a rubber stamp; party leaders make the real decisions in the KDP stronghold of Salahuddin--carefully maintaining a continual state of negotiated deadlock--and then notify the supposed lawmakers. "No parliament has power over these parties," says Shwan Mahmood, political editor of the independent Kurdish newspaper Hawlati. "Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani see themselves as above parliament." According to Amnesty International, both parties committed gross human rights violations throughout the '90s, from torture to summary executions.
Hawlati is a rarity in Kurdistan, where the media landscape is choked with shamelessly partisan newspapers like Khabat, which proclaims without irony that it is the "Party Organ of the KDP." Both Khabat and its PUK counterpart, the region's only dailies, revel in excruciatingly detailed accounts of their patrons' activities. Criticism of the party leaders is rare; deviation from the party line is almost never permitted. After the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the parties warned journalists not to call coalition troops "occupying forces," ordering them to say "liberators" instead. "They were calling themselves 'occupation authorities,' so why should we avoid using that term?" laughs Azad Seddiq, host of the popular TV talk show "Didar" ("Interview") on Kurdsat, the PUK's satellite channel. "Unfortunately, we are repeating some of the worst habits of the Baathist regime."
THE SADDEST IRONY of all is that, free of any need to answer to the public, the parties can afford to ignore the Kurds' most burning desire:independence. While it's hardly a practical goal at the moment--neighboring Turkey, Syria, and Iran have made it quite clear they would respond drastically to such a move--the majority of Kurds want a government that will at least acknowledge that desire. And, before the national elections, it seemed Kurdistan was beginning to liberalize and even to consider acknowledging the popularity of independence. After the Iraq war, a group of Kurdish doctors, lawyers, poets, and exiles founded a mass movement to demand that Kurdistan hold a referendum asking Kurds if they want independence. In two weeks in February 2004, the movement gathered 1.7 million signatures--about half of Kurdistan's population of approximately 3.6 million--supporting a referendum. Their plan was to deliver the signatures to the United Nations that summer and simultaneously hold demonstrations. Many of the referendum movement's leaders also dared to criticize Kurdish party leaders, publishing articles on pro-independence websites. It seemed as though Kurdistan's closed civil society was slowly breaking open.
But then the run-up to the national elections began. The parties cracked down on the referendum movement, banning more mass demonstrations and preventing the local organizers from delivering the signatures abroad. When the United Nations finally deigned to welcome the stateless Kurds, on December 22, 2004, the quiet handover of their petitions garnered barely any attention--just as the parties had planned. "The PUK and KDP are afraid that, if there are mass demonstrations, it will look to the Americans like they don't support the elections," says Kamal Mirawdeli, one of the movement's organizers. "So they put pressure on people in Kurdistan not to have demonstrations."
At the same time, the parties were busy convincing homegrown opposition groups outside the referendum movement to close ranks. The national elections gave the Kurdish parties an airtight argument against dissent: the Shia. By skillfully invoking the specter of Iranian-style theocracy, the twoparties have convinced most Kurds-- including smaller parties opposed to the PUK and the KDP--that it was their patriotic duty to join with the unified ticket and avoid splitting the Kurdish vote. "Separate lists would lead to internal conflict--and, in the long run, could hurt all of us," says Muhammad Haji Mahmud, head of the independent Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party, which had originally planned to run independently. "If Kurds run in one list, it will help determine their percentage in Iraq, so that everybody knows their numbers, and there will be no split in the vote."
Not exactly the flowering of democracy the Iraqi elections were supposed to encourage. When the United Nations selected Iraq's electoral method, proportional representation, one of its selling points was that it allowed for minority representation. But the necessity of running in a national election, combined with the U.N.'s other choice--making Iraq into a single electoral district--transformed that strength into a weakness. Because the formula discriminates against independent candidates, it encourages small players to form coalitions instead of going it alone. The hope was that, by joining together, parties would join in that great parlor game of democracy, "coalition-building." It worked all too well, with Kurds and Shia congealing into two massive mega-slates based solely on religious and ethnic identity. And, just as the Shia super-slate forced smaller parties to join or risk losing the chance of getting any seats, the combined Kurdish ticket effectively forced all the smaller parties to align themselves with the PUK and the KDP or be lost.
WHAT CAN BE done as Iraq prepares for elections that appear certain to harden internal divisions and keep undemocratic parties in power? Some experts think Iraq's nascent democratic movements would fare better in local elections. In fact, local elections in Kurdistan are the one exception toparty hegemony: While smaller parties like Mahmud's joined the combined Kurdish ticket for the regional and national elections, they are running independently on the local ballot. "Iraqis would vote for different candidates if other sects were not going to be a threat," says Osman. "They would vote for alternatives, and you would see moderate elements begin to emerge. Hard-liners of each group would have to move to the center. Instead, because of fear of dominance, we're electing warlords."
Or worse. "For me, it's no different whether we have an Arab Saddam or a Kurdish Saddam," says Mirawdeli. "We need a real, genuine civil society. We don't want nationalism to mask some kind of dictatorship, which is what is happening in Kurdistan."
This article originally ran in the February 7, 2005 issue of the magazine.