Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Dead Souls Haunt Kurdish Poll

A young idealist finds the deceased appear to have played a role in Iraqi Kurdistan’s recent election.
By Ara David
The night before Iraqi Kurdistan’s parliamentary and presidential elections on July 25, I sat with my friends at a local bar, debating which list to vote for and whether our ballots would matter.

My friends were not keen to vote, arguing that the election might not be fair and could favour long-ruling incumbents. As a believer in democracy and elections, I urged them to participate.

One issue raised in the local press was that dead voters were still on electoral roll, a sign, some believed, that trouble lay ahead.

By midnight, and tired after several rounds of drinks, we came to the conclusion that voting is a civic duty – an honour bestowed upon us by Kurdish peshmerga freedom fighters and the victims of Saddam.

We decided that we would all go to the polls and encourage others to do the same, regardless of their political persuasions. I remained undecided but knew that I had to vote.

The next day, I stumbled out of bed at 1.30 pm. As I walked downstairs, I heard my father arguing that the Kurdistani list, the coalition of the parties that had ruled Kurdistan for decades, would keep us safe from Arab threats.

My mother argued for the main challenger, Change, asserting that the list could bring the rule of law to Kurdistan and return valuable lands that had been taken from our family ten years ago.

The debate echoed the one I had had with friends the night before. Still undecided, I listened to the Kurdish media to see if one side could persuade me.

A little after 5 pm, one hour before the polls were to close, I started walking to the polling station. As I set out on my 30-minute journey, my internal debate over how I would cast my ballot continued. But I was proud and eager to carry out my civic duty.

Half way to the polling station, I was dripping in sweat. The sun burned on my head, and the sidewalk was as dusty. I spotted a cat lazing under a tree and thought how lucky cats are: they don’t have responsibilities weighing down on them as people do.

My mobile rang, frightening the cat. It was one of my second cousins, who was working at a polling station in another town.

“I did something funny!” she said. “I voted for you in my station.”

For a moment I forgot about the heat. It was as if time was standing still.

She told me that some party officials had come to the station, telling polling station workers to add the names of relatives who did not live in the area to the local electoral roll. They then filled out ballots using those names.

Shocked, I continued on my way. As I approached the station my phone rang again. It was another relative at another station.

“Your grandfather’s wish came true!” he said.

After casting his own ballot, my relative had used my grandfather’s name to vote a second time.

My grandfather was an honourable man who stood for a strong and democratic Kurdistan. He has been dead for 12 years.

My family has helped shape the history of this region. My grandfather lost all of his uncles and one of his elder brothers fighting the British for Iraq’s independence.

My grandfather was exiled from Iraqi Kurdistan by Saddam Hussein’s regime for 11 years for helping Kurdish leader and Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, founder Mustafa Barzani. His son is Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan region.

As I reflected on this, I thought for a moment about giving up on Iraqi Kurdistan entirely and joining the ranks of young Kurds who are trying to leave Iraq.

I remembered President Barzani’s recent speech calling for the elections to be fair and transparent. All of the words like justice, democracy, rights and transparency were spinning in my head.

I remembered the words of my grandfather, an educated pacifist, who told his

cousin some years ago, “Barzani and his people are good peshmerga. They are the best at fighting.

“But they don’t have the right to rule Kurdistan. A civilian government must be assembled from all of the educated and prominent Kurds based on qualifications, not military strength.”

My grandfather would not be surprised by the vote-rigging, I decided. But he would have been disappointed and angered, just as I was.

Defeated, I decided not to vote. I felt as if I had misled my friends, who had warned me about fraud before I won them over with sweeping statements about democracy.

I arrived home at 10 pm and saw my mother, who had also been working at a polling station.

She told me that Kurdish security services had come to the station shortly after the polls closed and stuffed the ballot boxes. They had used the names of their dead relatives who were still on the electoral roll.

I went to bed depressed.

I later heard Iraq’s election commission was investigating reports of violations on polling day.

Commission official Sardar Abdulaziz said he could not comment on specific allegations. But he insisted the commission would make thorough checks and take “tough action” if any political entity was found to have carried out fraud.

On the morning after election day, I took a taxi into work. The driver played a song about the brave peshmerga who fought for us in the mountains.

He told me that four of his family members who were eligible to vote cast three ballots each.

“Now Barzani has won, and the Kurdish nation is victorious,” he said.

I was frustrated and I felt sorry for him. It is common to discuss personal matters in cabs in Erbil, so I asked him a few questions about his financial situation.

He told me he rents a house in a very poor district. His 14-year-old son works instead of going to school.

He told me he spent his youth fighting Saddam Hussein’s regime as a peshmerga in the mountains of Kurdistan. He dreamed of becoming an engineer, but never finished his schooling.

“I know that KDP forgot about those who supported them in the past, but I’m loyal to Mustafa Barzani and so I voted for his son,” he said.

“The ruler must be brutal, or else people won’t obey. Sometimes we must sacrifice democracy for glory,” he added.

I thought to myself how powerful the dead had become in this election. The deceased were still influencing voters, and ballots were cast in their names.

The living had been passed over for the dead, at the expense of democracy.

Ara David is the pseudonym of a student in Erbil. He wrote this report for IWPR.