In the last week before the elections in Iraq this Sunday, many English language media outlets have written background pieces and published interviews to inform their readers, but Kurdistan is never part of the equation – at least, I have seen no examples. And that’s a pity, because the new electoral rules and the power dynamics between Baghdad and Erbil on one side and between different Kurdish parties on the other, are quite telling. Shall we focus on women?
Coincidentally, just as I was pondering this column, the Kurdish artist, humanitarian activist and women’s rights campaigner Dashni Morad was busy on social media encouraging people to go and vote. Apparently, people told her they would vote for her if they could.
She then jokingly wondered if it would be a good plan to start a political party of her own. Cynically enough, if she really wanted to be in politics, she would have to play along with the men’s games – especially in the Kurdistan Region.
Women candidates are to a large extent instrumentalised because of the new election system that was introduced after the mass protests in Baghdad and elsewhere in 2019. There are now 83 voting districts, instead of the former 18. To reach the women’s quota of 25% of the seats in parliament, 83 women have to be elected. The rule is that every district has to be represented by at least one woman. If no woman gets enough votes, the man who was elected with the least number of votes will be replaced with the woman getting the most votes.
The result is, as this excellent report by political scientist Mera J. Bakr explains, that parties who have no chance of winning a seat in a certain district, put a female candidate forward there. They know she can’t beat the men of the more popular party, and that’s exactly the plan: the chance she will become the woman with the most votes, is big, and therefore she will replace the weakest candidate from the rival party. This works the best if the party that is expected to get the most votes, doesn’t put very popular women on their list, of course, because then such a swap isn’t necessary to meet the demand that the district sends at least one woman to Baghdad. Cynically, this prerequisite is often easily met.
This use of women as a tool for parties to grab a seat in districts where they are not at all popular, comes in very handy especially in the Kurdistan Region. After all, there are only two power blocks: the KDP, and the so-called Kurdistan Coalition (PUK and Gorran), and they both have districts where they are historically strong, so they know exactly where to play the woman-tool to grab an extra seat. It’s gross, really.
Of course, Dashni Morad, or any woman who cares and wants to make a difference, could run as an independent. This has become much easier in the new election system. But getting elected will be extremely hard, in part because of the 83 districts: you need to have a voter base that is so much concentrated in a district, that it garners enough votes to get elected. Of course, you can be a not-so-independent independent, meaning that you can make a deal with a certain party or block that you will join with after the elections. You either have to be an extremely popular female candidate for such a position, or agree to be used in the voting trick of grabbing a seat as I described above. Any woman interested?
Start your own political party, as Morad suggested? Sure, that’s possible. But while Iraq proper has a whole lot of political parties, the Kurdistan Region has only a few, and two dominate the political scene and the media and all the available funding. So your new party either has zero chance, or will have to align with one of those two heavy weights to get into parliament indirectly on their ticket. But that’s not what you wanted. You had a vision of your own.
That’s what it started with: you had a vision of your own. But you know what? Visions are irrelevant especially in the Kurdistan Region. The PUK, for example, has managed to win over tribal leaders who have been aligned with the KDP forever to vote for the PUK-Gorran alliance this time. How they won them over? By making the son of the tribal leader a candidate. Policy proposals about issues that can really change people’s lives for the better, for example about youth unemployment, violence against women, improving public services, diversifying the economy, are just not relevant at all. Not to even mention the most pressing problem of the whole of the country, according to opinion polls among citizens in the whole of Iraq: corruption. Add ‘nepotism’ to that in the Kurdistan Region.
Which closes the circle: if you want to genuinely tackle the problem that people say wrecks their daily lives the most and that impacts all the other issues, there is almost no other way than to first become part of that problem, and as a woman, let yourself be a tool in this oppressive system.
How utterly depressing.