KDP decision to boycott polls sends shockwaves across Iraq

A bold move from the KDP comes with major implications. It reveals deepening constitutional fault lines and growing unease over Iranian influence

Iraqi Kurds wave flags as they attend an election rally for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) at the Arbil citadel in Arbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region, on October 7, 2021.
Iraqi Kurds wave flags as they attend an election rally for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) at the Arbil citadel in Arbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region, on October 7, 2021.

KDP decision to boycott polls sends shockwaves across Iraq

The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which has been in power in the Iraqi Kurdistan region for decades, has recently decided to boycott upcoming parliamentary elections slated for 10 June, sending shockwaves across Iraq.

The KDP is the oldest and most popular of Iraq’s Kurdish parties, so its decision to boycott carries significant weight and is tantamount to a rejection of the entire political process in the country. The move could prompt other marginalised groups across Iraq to do the same, undermining the state's so-called democratic process.

The KDP—along with some of its smaller political allies—has consistently held more than half of the seats in the regional parliament since its inception over 30 years ago.

In addition, the KDP is extremely influential. It controls vital political, economic, and security apparatus in Iraqi Kurdistan, primarily located in Erbil and Dohuk and the Kurdish areas of Nineveh Governorate, including Mosul.

It is also one of the founding members of Iraq’s national political system. The KDP has been a key partner in the country’s ruling coalition since 2003.

The dispute's deepening extent reveals the fault lines running through the constitution and concerns over Iran's cross-border influence.

A member of Iraq's PMF stands in front of a banner depicting slain Iraqi commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (L) and IRGC commander Qasem Soleimani on Jan 2, 2023, at a ceremony marking the anniversary of their assassination.

Constitutional dispute

The KDP made the decision in response to a string of recent decisions by the Iraqi Federal Court, which it views as an attempt to curtail its power.

The Federal Court recently annulled a clause in the constitution declaring the Iraqi Kurdistan region as "a single electoral constituency, " meaning it would now be separated into four districts.

The KDP argues that the court has no jurisdiction over the matter and that its decisions violate the Iraqi constitution. It also says that the constitution gives preference to regional laws if they conflict with federal ones.

The Federal Court also tossed out parliamentary quotas allocated to Turkmen and Assyrian/Chaldean nationals (11 seats out of 111), which the KDP argues conflicts with Article 117 of the constitution, which guarantees administrative, political, and cultural rights to members of other ethnicities in Iraq and the two largest ethnicities, Arabs and Kurds.

The KDP also rejects the Federal Court's decision to “exclude the judicial authority in the region from adjudicating electoral appeals stipulated in the Kurdistan Parliament election law, assigning this authority to a judicial body under the federal Supreme Judicial Council,” calling it a serious encroachment.

The KDP's decision to boycott is a response to a string of recent decisions made by the Iraqi Federal Court, which it views as an attempt to curtail its power.

The KDP pointed out other areas where the court has exceeded its authority.

This includes annulling the Oil and Gas Law in the Kurdistan Region, which was approved according to Article 110 of the constitution, and transferring it to the jurisdiction of the Higher Commission for Elections and Referendum in the region to organise elections.

The KDP views such restrictions as essentially a political, economic and security blockade placed on it at the behest of Iran and part of a concerted and ongoing intensification campaign in the past few months.

In their view, Iran wants to subordinate the Kurdistan region, as it has already done with the central government in Baghdad.

Longstanding campaign

Pressure on the KDP began following the results of the Iraqi parliamentary elections held in late 2021. The party joined a tripartite alliance with the Shiite Sadrist Movement and the Sunni Al-Tawafuq Party, which won the elections and went on to try to oust Iranian allies from positions of power.

In response, Iran and its affiliated Iraqi forces put pressure on the tripartite alliance and succeeded in pushing the Sadrist Movement to give up its parliamentary seats and boycott the entire political process. They also sacked the head of parliament, Al-Tawafuq party leader Mohammed Al-Halbousi.

Such measures were not the first time the party faced opposition from Iran and its allies within Iraqi politics. Because the KDP is better established in its heartlands, with roots going back to Saddam Hussein's era, these groups have viewed the party as a serious threat.

In 1996, the central government banned the Kurdistan region from exporting oil, which dealt a massive blow to its budget and stoked an economic crisis across Iraqi Kurdistan. The deteriorating quality of life also hurt the KDP's popularity among the region's citizens at the time.

Military component

In the past year, Iran has also stepped up military attacks on the party's areas of influence through its proxy groups in Iraq.

These attacks have targeted military bases and US facilities in these areas, as well as sporadic attacks on Peshmerga forces' bases and centres, under the pretext of expelling US forces from Iraq.

A member of the Iranian Kurdish Peshmerga of the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran inspects the damage to the party's headquarters following an Iranian attack in the town of Koysanjak, east of Erbil district, on November 26, 2022.

Read more: Border tensions, Kurdish separatists and an Iranian ultimatum

Iran has also directly attacked camps of Iranian Kurdish refugees in the region and the homes of Kurdish businessmen, alleging that the Israeli Mossad is using them as intelligence-gathering centres.

The campaign also involved stoking division between the KDP and broader Iraqi political parties. One way it did this was to distribute the region's share of the national budget to other parties. 

Meanwhile, internal divisions among the Kurds have hurt the region's ability to counter this campaign. This combination of factors contributed to the KDP's decision to boycott the upcoming elections.

Clear and present danger

Al Majalla spoke to Iraqi and Kurdish insiders and decision-makers, who all agreed that the KDP's decision could be the catalyst for a major upheaval in Iraq's current political landscape.

In its statement announcing the boycott, the KDP directed its message to the Shiite-dominated federal government, holding it responsible for the ongoing situation and threatening the possibility of escalation.

"We place the parties of the state management alliance before their national responsibilities in implementing the constitution and all the provisions of the political and administrative agreement regarding the formation of the current government under the presidency of Mr Mohammed Shia' Al Sudani. Otherwise, we cannot continue in the political process."

The KDP's decision could create a domino effect with Sadrist and Sunni political forces also boycotting the elections.

Some of the country's major political groups allied with the KDP – including the Dawa Party and the Wisdom Movement – have asked the party to reconsider its decision, although the dynamics in the alliance have shifted heavily away from the KDP in recent years.

Nonetheless, the KDP continues to see itself as one of the core components of Iraq's political system and the guardian of national inclusivity.

This inclusivity extends not only to established political forces but also to Iraq's three main ethnic components: Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds.

The withdrawal of the KDP from the political process, along with a large Kurdish popular bloc, could shake the foundations of this political process and its consensus-building framework.

The KDP's withdrawal has major national political implications. It could create a domino effect, with Sadrist and Sunni political forces boycotting the elections.

Muqtada al-Sadr's visit to the highest Shiite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, came one day after the KDP's decision, which some interpret as a calculated escalation.

The shrine of Imam Ali in Najaf. The city is home to Iraq's influential Religious Authority.

Read more: How Iraq's Religious Authority rose to prominence after Saddam's fall 

On their part, Sunni forces were less forceful in their request to the KDP to reconsider its decision, suggesting they, too, were ready to escalate.

The KDP holds massive sway in the Kurdistan region and can easily organise popular protests and various other forms of opposition that could hinder the entire electoral process.

They have a lot of tools in their toolbelt to exert pressure on the federal government, including boycotts, civil disobedience and other forms of protest.

The Kurdistan Region has been founded for decades on a partnership between the two main parties – the Patriotic Union and the KDP.

This partnership, which has evolved over time, has represented a broader regional balance surrounding Iraq and, in later stages, a balance between the US and some regional powers.

Consequently, the KDP's boycott and withdrawal from parliamentary representation and governance institutions may disrupt this balance, potentially leading to regional and perhaps even international efforts to restore it.

font change

Related Articles