The Dialectics of Numbers and Narratives:

Electoral Crisis in the Context of Demographic Change – The Case of the Kirkuk Provincial Council Elections

17 December, 2018

This is a timely book published shortly after the onset of the ongoing political crisis sparked by the independence referendum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq held on September 25, 2017. At the time, the world held its breath as the Iraqi central government and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) inched close to the precipice of war. Tensions, which reached a fever pitch with the Iraqi army's reclaiming of Kirkuk and other disputed areas between the central government and the Kurdistan Regional Government on October 16, have ebbed but the situation remains volatile. The oil-rich province of Kirkuk, which was included in the Kurdish independence referendum despite the fact that it is not part of the Kurdistan Region, has been at the heart of a long-running dispute between the central government and the KRG.

In this well-written and tightly-argued volume, Khalil Fadl Osman investigates the crisis in which provincial elections in Kirkuk has been enmeshed since the first provincial polls in post-Saddam Iraq held in 2005. The book untangles the complex relationship between demographic change and the impasse that has been blocking the holding of provincial elections in Kirkuk since 2005. To that end, in Chapter 1, "Kirkuk and the Transformations of State and Identity in Iraq," the author situates Kirkuk in the course of the interaction between sub-national attachments and the making of the modern Iraqi nation-state since its formation following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. He explains how Kirkuk became increasingly central to the identities of the various communities competing over defining and controlling the province: Kurds, Turkmens, Arabs and Chaldo-Assyrian Christians.

In Chapter 2, "Kirkuk in the Labyrinths of Demographic Change," Osman marshals an impressive corpus of empirical data and primary sources to plot the trajectory of ethnic demographic changes in Kirkuk since the formation of the modern Iraqi state in 1921. He probes how these politically motivated transformations, particularly Arabization under Ba'ath party regime in the pre-2003 period and the Kurdish parties' encouragement of Kurds to move or return to Kirkuk in the post-2003 period, inflamed discord along ethnic fault lines leading to excluding Kirkuk from two provincial elections, 2009 and 2013, till now.

In Chapter 3, "The Rise and Decline of Article 140 Committee," Osman traces the intensification of the Kirkuk crisis against the backdrop of the botched efforts to resolve the problem of the so-called "disputed internal territories" through constitutional and legal means. His analysis focuses on investigating the failure of the governmental committee formed to implement Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution which stipulates a 3-stage process to resolve the problem of Kirkuk and other disputed internal territories, viz. normalization, census and referendum to determine the will of the residents of these areas.

In Chapter 4, "Population Growth Trends in Kirkuk," Osman maps out the patterns of population growth in Kirkuk since the general population census held in Iraq in 1947, the first reliable national population census held in Iraq. Using census data and other primary and secondary sources, including field interviews, the author examines the demographic changes that unfolded in Kirkuk over the years. He shows how demographic changes engineered by state, sub-national and non-state actors heightened ethnic tensions in the province and led to the indefinite postponement of the holding of a general census in post-2003 Iraq.

In Chapter 5, "Kirkuk in Iraqi Narratives of Victimization and Victimizer," Osman sets out to survey and deconstruct the contending narratives propagated by communal elites in Kirkuk regarding the victimization, whether real or imagined, endured by the province's demographic components – Kurds, Turkmens, Arabs and Chaldo-Assyrian Christians. Taking a leaf out of fundamental social science writings on narratives of victimization, he offers a critical, deep and very detailed analysis of the nature of narratives of victimization and how they employ the past in the service of political projects spearheaded by political elites. Arguing that narratives of victimization are a main element in the making of sub-national identities in societies afflicted by divisions and communal disputes, Osman shows how narratives of victimization flourish and play out in Kirkuk province. By analytically surveying the narratives of victimization of these four communities, the author seeks to elucidate the operation of these narratives and their role in complicating, if not even preventing, the chances of reaching solutions for the mounting thorny problems in the province and, in turn, in awakening and intensifying intercommunal discord.

In Chapter 6, "The Dialectics of Elections and the Right to Vote," Osman analyzes the election results and voter registration data in Kirkuk in the post-2003 period to shed light on the deepening electoral crisis in the province. His painstaking analysis, which makes use of primary voter registration and turnout data as well as demographic statistics tracking population flows into and out of Kirkuk, shows erratic swings in voter registration and voter behavior which raise questions about possible fraud and padding of the voter registration lists. These and other anomalies which indicate possible irregularities have given rise to demands by the Arabs and Turkmens to review voter rolls. Osman examines the serious problems which resulted from these electoral anomalies in Kirkuk – a province where a narrow definition of representation that views elected officials as acting on behalf of their respective ethnic and religious communities rather than all their constituents predominates. He shows that the lack of up-to-date and accurate voting rolls has raised questions not only about the legitimacy of the vote itself but also about who has the right to vote in Kirkuk.

Osman's original and groundbreaking study concludes with a section, entitled "In Search of an Exit from the Dark Tunnel," that offers technical recommendations aimed at reforming electoral registration in Kirkuk as a way out of the festering electoral impasse in the province.

Overall, Osman's book provides an innovative, thought-provoking, analytically rigorous, and eminently readable examination of the Kirkuk crisis.

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