BEIRUT: Syria’s Kurds are facing next month’s presidential election with a mix of defiance, pragmatism and indifference.
The June 3 polls are expected to see President Bashar Assad easily defeat two lesser-known challengers, but in areas where the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) holds sway, the battle will be over turnout, and spinning the events of election day as a “victory.”
The so-called Kurdish areas of Syria – where Kurds form nearly the entire population, or the largest of several main groups – stretch along the country’s 700-kilometer northern border.
They range from fairly small pockets in the west to considerably larger swathes of territory in the east, but in the latter areas Kurds are joined by Sunni Arabs as well as Assyrian Christians.
While the Kurdish political scene is fragmented into a few dozen political parties and movements, the PYD – a branch of the PKK based next door in Turkey – is the dominant militarily force on the ground, through its militia the YPG (People’s Protection Units).
In 2012, regime forces pulled out of many Kurdish areas, leading to a de facto takeover by the PYD, but the regime continues to enjoy a strong presence in the city of Hassakeh and a lesser but concentrated military and security presence in the Kurdish-majority city of Qamishli, in the extreme northeast.
Saleh Muslim, the head of the PYD, has made a few intriguing statements in the run-up to the polls, in terms of whether his party would “allow” them to take place.
In one, earlier this month, he said the polls would take place in areas where his PYD has set up a self-governing zone, split into western, central and eastern sections.
In remarks to a Kurdish news outlet, Muslim welcomed the distribution of ballot boxes by the government, but the PYD chief added that “Assad can deploy his troops in Syrian Kurdistan, but only if he accepts Kurdish rights.”
The outlet noted that Muslim predicted the regime would manage to put out ballot boxes in areas of Hassakeh and at the airport in Qamishli, where the Syrian army is deployed. But he declined to state whether the pollswould take place in a number of smaller, Kurdish-majority areas to the west, the outlet said.
Muslim also voiced his expectation that Kurds who do take part “are likely not to vote for Assad because they are currently busy with their own elections [in the self-rule areas].”
The governor of Hassakeh province – where Qamishli is located – has said the elections in Kurdish-controlled areas were a certainty, and thanked the Kurdish population for what he said was its full support for the electoral process.
But the self-governing authority – which is dominated by the PYD – this week stated that the elections were a mistake because they would only “prolong the country’s crisis, and increase the pace of the daily murder of Syrians.”
“Holding a presidential election at this difficult time in the country’s history is neither a sound nor wise decision,” it added.
Anti-regime news outlets have described the stances of Muslim, his PYD, and the self-rule authority as the height of pragmatism and having it both ways – the authority is described as leading a “boycott,” but at the same time it “allows” the regime to conduct pro-election rallies and put up election paraphernalia in the city of Hassakeh, for example.
Mohammad Kheir Banko, a Kurdish National Council representative to the opposition-in-exile National Council, reiterated his group’s stand that the election was a “farce,” but acknowledged that in cities such as Hassakeh and Qamishli, polling stations would be established and voting would take place.
“But in the western towns, such as Amouda, Derbasieh and elsewhere, I think it would be stupid if the regime tries to distribute ballot boxes, where it doesn’t have a military presence. The public won’t accept the idea,” he told The Daily Star.
Massoud Akko, a Syrian-Kurdish journalist who left the country for security-related reasons and is now based in Norway, said several factors are leaving people unenthusiastic about the coming poll – one in which the various political sides will likely declare “victory,” irrespective of what happens.
“I don’t think Kurds, other than maybe Saleh Muslim’s people, will go out and vote, but most Christians will,” he continued, describing the latter community as largely neutral, but liable to participate nonetheless.
He agreed that the western areas of the Kurdish self-ruled areas were unlikely to see polls take place, because the PYD is at heart anti-Assad, even though it is accused of being in league with the regime. In addition, the general atmosphere of anxiety over daily life and anger because of the war prevails over much of the Kurdish community.
“There are thousands of Kurds who left rural Damascus, where they were working before the war, and ended up in Qamishli as refugees. The city of Qamishli gets about one hour of electricity a day, and job opportunities are scarce, while prices are skyrocketing,” Akko said.
“There’s a sense of general despair, and a distinct lack of enthusiasm about taking part in an election carried out by this regime.”
Both men said that several hundred thousand Syrian Kurds have fled the country, mainly in the direction of Iraqi Kurdistan next door, meaning an even lower number of overall voters.
Since many of them did not exit through legal crossing-points, they are ineligible to vote, according to the election law.
An observer of Kurdish politics, who requested anonymity, said that come election day, certain segments of the population would turn out to vote, such as people who do so fearing the consequences of staying away.
“You have the non-Kurds, and a group of them will turn out. You have the state employees, who are obliged to do so,” he said.
The PYD, the observer continued, was operating based on a simple list of priorities, and the notion of its being in league with the regime was an oversimplification.
“The party is pragmatic, and it does not want to engage in an open war with the regime. Otherwise, its other main concern is the growing influence of Islamists,” he said.
The observer cited sources within the Kurdish community, close to the PYD, who indicated that while the party had officially criticized the election, in a decision many people are calling a “boycott,” the PYD is in fact letting the public decide whether it should show up on election day.