Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Voting Day in Iraqi Kurdistan

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Voting Day in Iraqi Kurdistan

Article excerpt

Iraqi Kurds went to the polls recently to elect their Legislative Council, the governing body of the Autonomous Region in northern Iraq. Just one year after the cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq War and international condemnation of Iraq over the alleged use of chemical weapons against rebellious Kurdish villages, the government of Iraq invited some 200 journalists from around the world to observe those elections. The message seems clear from afar: "We have nothing to hide. There is no Kurdish problem." But the journalists had a problem of their own. Without press kits, informational briefings or translators, they were running around asking each other questions and pooling data.

According to such official figures as were readily available, 785,000 people, a claimed 90 percent of eligible voters, elected the 50-member council from a slate of 174 candidates. It is the Legislative Council which determines laws for the region and votes on the recommendations of its own executive council in local economic, social, developmental, cultural, health and labor matters which constitute Kurdish prerogative.

Self-Rule for the Kurds

Several years after the 1968 establishment of the Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party rule in Iraq, an agreement was signed mandating a degree of self-rule for the Kurds and addressing issues of autonomy, including rights to local elections, a Kurdish press and the use of the Kurdish language in primary and secondary schools. The latter is a right not accorded Kurds in any of the other countries in which they live. In addition to Iraq, the world's 16 million Kurds have settled in Turkey, Iran, Syria, Soviet Azerbaijan, and, as immigrants, Lebanon.

Although not always as well attended as this year's elections, elections for the Legislative Council have proceeded every three years since 1974 in Iraq, where Kurds represent more than 25 percent of the population of 15 million.

Prior to the elections, all candidates were given equal time in the local media, including two Kurdish language TV stations, several Kurdish newspapers and a number of magazines. Each voter received a registration form printed in Kurdish and Arabic to be brought to one of the 211 polling places as proof of eligibility. On the sunny autumn morning of the elections, as people flooded into those election centers on display to the foreign press, their names were crossed off the voting list and the forms were exchanged for ballots. Reporters were delighted by the many examples of traditional Kurdish dress. Men wore skull caps with checkered keffiyehs wound in a distinctively Kurdish style around their heads, and either flowing pants or long robes girded with wide flowered belts. Women wore black or fuchsia dresses and long black scarves draped to their knees. Others arrived in billowing pantaloons, their blouses glowing with the pinks and purples of the mountain sunsets.

Although the voting age is 18, small children ran in and out of the hall, savoring the excitement. At one polling place in Suleimania, which, with the Governates of Arbil and Dohuk, forms the Autonomous Region, the excitement escalated sharply with the dramatic appearance of a number of party executives. Towering over the crowd, the briskly uniformed Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of the Ba'ath Party Revolutionary Command Council (second after Iraqi President Saddam Hussain) and purported architect of the election system, strode to the exit ballot box. …

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