Elections are the cornerstone of any democratic society, pivotal in shaping governance, fostering peace, and empowering citizens.
In the Middle East, the journey toward genuine democratic elections in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) commenced after it was liberated from Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in 1992. This marked a historic milestone, witnessing the region’s inaugural democratic parliamentary elections and paving the way for subsequent municipal polls.
Between 2005 and 2018, the KRI conducted pivotal elections, including parliamentary and provincial council elections in 2005, parliamentary elections in 2009 and 2013, regional elections for provincial councils in 2014, the referendum on the KRI’s independence in 2017, and parliamentary elections in 2018. These elections were pivotal in shaping the region’s democratic landscape.
Central to this electoral process was the implementation of a semi-open list proportional system, ensuring diverse representation across political, geographical, and ideological spectrums within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Parliament. This system empowers voters to select their preferred candidates, reinforcing democratic principles.
To ensure the integrity and fairness of these elections, the KRG established the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission (IHERC) through Law No. 4 of 2014. Unlike other electoral authorities, the IHERC’s mandate is focused on upholding international standards, fostering stakeholder confidence, and conducting transparent and credible elections.
In tandem with these electoral advancements, the KRG enacted the Political Parties Law in 1993, which facilitated the establishment and regulation of new political entities, alongside promoting the growth of civil society organizations.
The pillars of the KRG’s political system – legislative, executive, and electoral frameworks; legal entities; political parties; and civil society organizations – sustain the region’s governance. Ensuring the authenticity of elections remains paramount, guaranteeing peaceful, violence-free, and impartial processes, thereby safeguarding voter freedom and the secrecy of their ballots.
Despite these advancements, raising the bar to meet international standards in free and fair elections requires concerted efforts in the following areas:
Regulating political party finances: Implementing legislation to oversee election expenditures by political parties, defining income sources, and setting clear spending limits for campaign propaganda are critical for upholding election integrity.
Enhancing women’s representation: Reserving 30% of council seats exclusively for women candidates could significantly increase female participation, departing from the current model where 30% of candidates on political lists must be women.
National civic awareness campaign: Launching a comprehensive campaign to bolster participation across all societal segments, especially among women as independent candidates and voters, is pivotal for inclusive elections.
Reforming electoral laws: Adapting electoral laws to align with societal and technological advancements ensures continued relevance and fairness in the electoral process.
Strengthening collaboration: Bolstering ties between the media, political entities, governmental bodies, legal institutions, civil society organizations, and citizens is crucial for a robust democratic ecosystem.
Scheduled elections: Enshrining fixed election dates every four years through legislation brings predictability and stability to the electoral calendar.
The IHERC requires further development, financial support, comprehensive training, and transparent adoption of electoral technology as well as global best practices. Strengthening collaboration between electoral bodies within and beyond the region is essential to address the challenges encountered during electoral processes.
Lastly, preparing for the referendum on the Constitution of the KRI signifies a pivotal step toward democratic principles, especially those entwined with elections and governance in the region.
In essence, elections in the Kurdistan Region symbolize progress towards democratic ideals. While commendable strides have been made, continuous refinement, adherence to international standards, and proactive measures are imperative for an inclusive and robust democratic process.
Handren M. Salih is the Chairman of the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission (IHERC) in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.