Elections and political culture in the Kurdistan Region

By Jalal Hasan:

Kurdistan Regional parliament

Kurdistan Regional parliament

Translated by Aras Ahmed Mhamad

The question that is always asked before elections is: which political party will win the majority of the votes and which will lose some of their votes and popularity? This question has also been asked in Kurdistan’s elections. Kurdish political parties and their leaders try to persuade people that their votes are increasing.

The fact that we are only left with less than two months, these kinds of claims are made by some political leaders from the political parties and their followers, including: leaders from the Movement for Change (Change List, Goran) (MC), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK), and the Islamic Parties. The question is: Will the political culture in the Kurdistan Region approve such sorts of claims?

To answer this question, we try to briefly define political culture and apply its dimensions to the elections in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The term “political culture’’ is very central in political science. Through researching this term, there have been attempts to analyze the behavior and reactions of political groups; be they national, ethnic, or religious. In the 1960s, two famous academics, Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba, wrote a book about political culture entitled, ‘The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations’. This book is so far considered to be a basic reference in understanding political culture. They defined political culture as “the particular distribution of patterns of orientation toward political objects among the members of the nation” (1). Here, by political objects they refer to formal institutions of the government.  Kavanagh also defines this term as a combination of values through which the political system works (2). Hence, political culture is the perception and judgment that people have towards the governmental establishments. One of the governmental institutions that we focus on is the “Elections”.

The political culture of elections in Kurdistan is the values through which attitudes are taken towards the political parties by people, who either vote for them or do not. The question is: what are the values that determine the attitude of people in the elections? In fact, the answer to this question needs research and surveys. However, and by depending on my own experience, I will generally mention a point that is related to this issue, which is: people generally vote for the same parties they voted for before.

In reality, in Kurdistan people rarely change their votes from one election to another, unless there is ideological change or partition of a certain political party.  For example, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) votes increased after 1994 at the expense of PDK and PUK. This ideological change happened because those people, who swapped loyalty, believed that Islam is the solution for the deeply-rooted problems in society, and not those ideological foundations in which both aforementioned parties built their agendas on. An example of the partition of political parties is the partition of the Islamic Union of Kurdistan (ISK) into the Kurdistan Islamic Party (KIP) and the Islamic Movement in Kurdistan (IMK). Additionally, an example of the partition of national and secular parties is the partition of MC from the PUK. In the first partition, the majority of the votes went to the KIP and, in the second, a large amount of votes w0ent to the MC.

Voting for the same political party has some reasons behind it. One is that people think it is a “shame’’ to change their minds or not to vote for the same party. In this specific situation, people vote on the basis of their prior loyalty, not political agendas. This is why some parties rarely witness an increase in their votes, no matter how valid and honest their agendas are.

This trend may differ from one generation to the other. For instance, people who were Peshmargas (freedom fighters) in the 1960s vote in favor of KDP; whereas, the 1970s generation generally vote for PUK, MC, and KDP. But the 1990s generation, which is also called the Generation of the 1991 Uprising, vote in favor of the opposition parties which are MC, KIU, and KIP. However, some of them still vote for KPD and PUK. Furthermore, votes for parties may change from one city to another. In Duhok, for instance, a majority of the votes go to the KPD, then KIU and PUK. In Hawler (Arbil), the capital of the region, KDP comes first and then the PUK, CM, KIU, and KIP. In Slemani, the KDP has always got the least votes compared to the other two cities. In Kirkuk, the PUK has always got the lion’s share.

The reason behind the voters’ prior loyalty attitude changes according to the ideologies of the political parties. Islamic parties’ voters vote on the basis of the candidates’ religious beliefs- not the candidates’ skills and qualities.  It is common among such voters that voting is to bear witness to the existence of the Judgment Day and that the voter will be judged with the person s/he votes for by depending on verse 71 in Surat Al-Isra in the Holy Quran.

In other political parties, such as the KDP and PUK, voting is bound to their past guerrilla warfare. The KDP and PUK derive legitimacy from their mountain struggle and their supporters and voters argue that other parties have come to a ready-made table and have not gone through the hardships of struggling against the Ba’ath Regime and, as a result, they believe that it is illegitimate to vote for them.

In this kind of political culture, which relies on prior ideological loyalty, it is unlikely to expect prominent and great changes in the election results.


Almond, G. A. and S. Verba (1989). The civic culture : political attitudes and democracy in five nations. Newbury Park, Calif., Sage Publications. (pp 13)

Kavanagh, D. (1983). Political science and political behaviour. London ; Boston, Allen & Unwin. (pp 49)

The Kurdish link: http://bayanpress.net/Article_Detail.aspx?Articleid=419&AuthorID=137

Jalal Hasan Mistaffa gained an MA in International Relations at Swansea University in 2008. He is a PhD Candidate in Politics at Newcastle University.

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