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Future of Minorities At Stake in Struggle Between Erbil and Baghdad
By Dario Salvi
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Dark clouds are gathering over Iraqi Kurdistan amid growing tensions between Erbil and Baghdad in view of elections to the regional parliament scheduled next June.

In a joint statement released yesterday, representatives of different Christian communities - including Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syriacs and Armenians -- express support for the decision by the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to boycott the upcoming vote.

This decision comes as tensions and concerns are rising about the legality and fairness of the electoral process.

The declaration, signed by key organisations such as the Hammurabi Coalition, underlines the common commitment to upholding constitutional principles and safeguarding Iraq's fragile democracy.

At the centre of the controversy is the 21 February ruling by Iraq's Federal Supreme Court (FSC), terminating the 11 seats reserved for minorities in the Kurdistan assembly: five for Chaldeans and Assyrians, one for Armenians and five for Turkmens.

Boycotting the vote is seen as a necessary step to counter "unconstitutional circumstances".

Stressing the importance of fair elections, the signatories reiterate the need for the process to keep to the legal and constitutional frameworks established in the Kurdish regional government and to be impartial and inclusive, free from external interference.

"We support the KDP's declaration and all efforts to protect democracy and keep a balance among institutions," which is why "any decision that undermines Iraqi democracy must be opposed."

Controversial sentence

The crisis was triggered by a ruling of the FSC to cancel the quota for ethnic minorities, including Christians, in the Kurdistan regional parliament.

Such a move is a further blow to Christians, already victims of the violence that followed the US invasion of 2003, which provoked the community's demographic collapse, from 1.5 million to just over 300,000.

This has been compounded by a clash between the Chaldean Patriarch of Baghdad, Card Louis Raphael Sako, the country's highest Christian religious authority, and Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid after the latter revoked the decree that formally recognised the prelate as the country's Chaldean patriarch.

In the wake of the president's decision, the Chaldean primate temporarily moved the patriarchal see from the capital Baghdad to Erbil.

In addition to other critical issues, the FSC decided to abolish the 11-seat quota reserved for ethnic and religious minorities, including Christians, in the regional assembly, ahead of 10 June elections.

To critics, such a decision appears to be detrimental to the political rights of minorities that are guaranteed under the constitution.

This is why various political parties and minority representatives plan to boycott the election, which was set on 3 March, unless the ruling is overturned.

Kurdistan Regional President Nechirvan Barzani postponed it several times due to disputes between the parties.

Uncertain vote

Fuelling the controversy between the parties is the way in which the elections process itself and the dissolution of the legislature after the FSC deemed its self-extension "unconstitutional".

Since 1992 regional elections have been held every four years to pick 111 members of the local parliament, with the last dating back to 2018.

The vote was originally scheduled for October 2022, but was delayed due to disagreements between the PDK and its main rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

After extensive bargaining the two parties eventually agreed to extend the mandate of the parliament by one year to continue negotiations on issues such as changing the electoral law and sharing taxes and oil revenues.

In May 2023, the FSC ruled that all decisions taken by the regional assembly after its extension were null and void, including the one aimed at reactivating the electoral commission to oversee the vote.

Last month, the court finally ruled that the Kurdistan Parliament should include only 100 members rather than 111 (excluding the minority quota) and that the elections should be overseen by the national electoral commission.

According to Dawid Salman, director of the Iraqi Independent High Electoral Commission, there are 3.6 million eligible voters in the Kurdistan Region

The battle of religious leaders

The issue does not only concern minorities, but could undermine Iraqi Kurdistan's very autonomy and its pluralistic nature, which have enabled many to find refuge from violence and persecution in recent years.

Hundreds of thousands of Christians, Yazidis, and Muslims fled Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, finding a safe haven in Iraqi Kurdistan, when Islamic State group ruled over large swathers of Syria and Iraq between 2014 and 2017

For Card Sako, who spoke to Rudaw, a Kurdish media network, the court's decision to scrap the quota for minorities in the Kurdish Parliament is "unconstitutional". He also expressed concern over the very reasons that led to the verdict.

"The ruling contradicts the law and the constitution, and does not honour prevailing customs. There are a lot of things that are not in the hands of the court," he said.

Not only Christian leaders, but the Shura Council of the Kurdistan Region, has come out against the FSC's ruling.

"The decision made by the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court, in contravention of the constitution and laws, establishes it as a superior authority above all other powers, leading to a multitude of unfavourable consequences, encompassing legal, political, and social dimensions," the Shura said in a statement.

One consequence is the decision by parties linked to the Turkoman, Assyrian, and Chaldean communities to boycott the 10 June vote.

Considering this, the Shura Council expressed concern that non-participation in the vote would cause further political problems in the autonomous region, where a crucial, yet fragile balance exists between the various groups.

The council warns that "the parliament formed after the elections will not include representatives from these communities. Therefore, it is essential for the Iraqi Federal Supreme Court to adhere to the Constitution, exercise its privileges as outlined in the Constitution, and avoid infringing upon the privileges of other branches of power."

However, such an appeal risks falling on deaf ears, generating more confusion and divisions in Iraq (and Kurdistan), already touched by past tensions and conflicts between ethnic and religious groups.

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