On Saturday the people of Iraqi Kurdistan elevated the politics of their autonomous region into a mature process. They proved that they are no longer the predictable electorate that the political parties of Iraqi Kurdistan can rely on to maintain the status quo.
But the following days and years will decide how far this maturity has reached the leadership of Kurdistan.
The results of the election — regardless of the final outcome – have meant different lessons for the three main parties. Although initial results show that no party has received what it was hoping for, each will be under strong pressure to revise its policies, positions and alliances.
In addition to ending their Strategic Agreement that was based on equal partnership, the two ruling parties should realize that the rules of the game have changed and that each will now have to operate differently.
For the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) the message from Sulaimani is clear: The party cannot prevail upon the city and will always need a partner with a strong standing there.
But the toughest lessons of these elections are for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which suffered from the absence of its leader and also because of its alliance with the KDP.
PUK leaders were unable to convince the large portion of undecided voters why they should vote for their party instead of for the KDP. The absence of their leaders and the fragmentation of their existing leadership have turned the PUK into the third force in Kurdistan.
PUK leaders have the toughest of jobs. If they want to remain an influential political force they need to frankly address all their defects, from their leadership crisis to their status in Kurdistan’s political process after the elections.
The PUK must decide whether it is staying in government or going into the opposition. In either scenario, they must also decide their relationship with the Change Movement (Gorran), given the fact that another election is only two months away.
Gorran, too, will be burdened by much greater responsibility if it decides to be an active political player. While it may be good to have a strong opposition in Kurdistan, a larger opposition unable to accomplish much in practice could lead to the political process going astray for all.
Gorran should know that the next government is going to be led by the KDP, if the numbers stay as they are. The KDP will look for a partner that is “stable and able to work together on a number of portfolios,” as some sources close to KDP’s leadership have said.
Oil, as well as relations with Baghdad, Syria and Turkey are all issues that the KDP say they will be looking to settle.
Gorran will have to decide how to politically translate the new weight it has gained at the polls. Will it join the government? Will it control parliament and get the speaker’s position? Or will it stay in opposition alongside the new empowered Islamic parties?
These are all early thoughts, based on early results that could change. But the main and concrete reality is that the Kurdish electorate has matured. The infant experience of Kurdistan has learned to walk.