Youth Vote Key to Kurdish Ballot

Economic concerns expected to drive young people to the polls.

Youth Vote Key to Kurdish Ballot

Economic concerns expected to drive young people to the polls.

Young people in Iraqi Kurdistan, complaining about being let down by the regional government, are threatening to vote it out at forthcoming assembly elections or even boycott the poll.

They say unemployment, poor housing and living standards are hitting them hard.

But the governing parties, in power for the last 18 years, are fighting back to win them over.

Two dozen lists and parties are contesting 111 Kurdistan Regional Government parliamentary seats in the July 25 poll across the KRG’s three provinces.

Young people are being drawn to the newly-formed Change list, which is based in Sulaimaniyah and is the chief challenger to the incumbent Kurdistani list, a powerful alliance led by the biggest names in Iraqi Kurdish politics.

The two major Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, led by Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, chaired by Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, head the Kurdistani list.

They are using popular singers to attract voters to parties and concerts and the lively campaign has generated unprecedented enthusiasm among young people. The voting age is 18.

Pop singer Zakaria performed at a massive rally in Erbil for Barzani earlier this week, while the Change list uses traditional Kurdish tunes as well as pop and rap songs to spread its reform agenda.

The Kurdistani list says it will create more jobs - particularly government jobs - for young people. It is also putting young parliamentary candidates on the ballot.

"Oil is not the only wealth of the country," Sozan Shahab, spokesman for Kurdistani Llst, said. "Youth are still the wealth and future.

"It is true that youth have complaints and we do not say everything is perfect, but that does not mean nothing has been done."

Young people are playing a bigger role this time than in the past, spending nights on the street chanting slogans, blaring car horns and spinning their car wheels. The cars are decorated with posters of candidates.

Candidates traditionally have stressed the need to protect Kurdistan from hostile neighbours and Arabs, an issue which strikes less of a chord with youngsters who have grown up with their relatively stable, semi-autonomous region.

Both major lists say they regard young people’s votes as important but that has not stopped the feeling of rejection.

"The failure of the Kurdish authorities to fulfil their promises has made youth rebellious," said Sardar Qadr, a teacher at the college of law and political science at Sulaimaniyah University and an expert at political power and diplomatic crises.

"Policies have been cobbled together. They have nothing to offer on housing and jobs," he said.

The Change list says it wants to be different, fixing the system of government, working for young people and ending corruption and injustice. It is headed by Nawshirwan Mustafa, who recently broke away from Talabani's party.

Change has a solid – and vocal – base of young supporters who take to the streets every night in a show of support.

Mustafa’s anti-corruption message resonates with young voters who have been the harshest critics of the ruling parties. Change says it wants to fight apathy by encouraging greater youth involvement in politics and government.

Qadr said it will collect protest votes from young people, "Authorities are trying to get back the opposing votes. They know that youth have rebelled."

In a message to young people, Mustafa described them as "more valuable than oil, gold, and silver".

Salam Mahmoud, 27, who works at a supermarket in the city, supports the Change list.

"Young people are fed up with the government. I have not been able to think about getting married as my salary is so small. I am thinking of going abroad," he said.

"I voted in past elections and promises were not kept. I am happy that this list is now challenging the powers that be.”

Despite the enthusiasm, Jaza Hamasalih, a Sulaimaniyah-based sociologist, argues that youth can be easily manipulated by candidates seeking to win an election.

"The lists here are using young people for their own purposes, and are using them in their struggles on the streets," he said.

Some young people have no confidence in any of the politicians after being let down.

Avin Karim, 25, a supermarket employee, says she and her friends have decided not to vote. She says not enough has been done to meet the demands of young people.

"We do not want to vote for someone whose promises are empty words," she said.

The Independent Youth list is looking for votes with the slogan "We will shake the parliament".

"Parliament is old and asleep. We want to wake it up," said Miran Osman, spokesman for the list.

"The Kurdish authority has never paid young people much attention and has deprived them of their rights."

But as a small, independent party, the Independent Youth list is not given much chance with young voters, many of whom are instead rallying around the Change list.

Seeking to tap into the housing issue, the opposition Service and Reform list, a coalition of two Islamist and two leftist parties, says it will offer reduced loan rates for homeowners and cheaper rents.

According to research by the Kurdistan Sociologists' Association, 69 per cent of university students in the region do not trust the political parties.

Hamasalih said young people’s despair at party politics and their plans to leave the country result from unfulfilled promises of the past.

"Young people’s negative feelings towards the authorities will make them nihilistic, break the law, and ultimately leave the country," he said.

Ako Khalil Zada and Azeez Mahmoud are IWPR-trained journalists in Sulaimaniyah. A version of this story was originally published in IWPR's Kurdish elections newspaper, Metro.
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