First-ever local elections to begin in Kurdish-held territories

AMMAN: Residents in Syria’s Kurdish-majority northern territories are heading to the polls on Friday to elect representatives at the neighborhood level in the first local elections to take place under the semi-autonomous federal system there.   

The local elections, which will include three separate rounds over the coming months, represent the latest move by Kurdish authorities to consolidate control over northern Syria after the dominant Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and allies voted to form a federal system last year.

Kurdish-controlled territories are divided into three cantons governed by the Self-Administration—Jazirah, Afrin and Kobani. The territories are home to nearly five million residents, including significant Kurdish, Arab, Syriac and Turkmen populations.

Voters in the first round of elections on Friday will elect representatives to communes, a designation referring to assemblies that oversee political, economic and social issues in individual neighborhoods.

PYD supporters in Qamishli march in favor of the local elections on September 17. Photo courtesy of PYD.

Communes are the base unit in the democratic confederalist system proposed by Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed head and ideological leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey. The Kurdish PYD in Syria maintains close ties to the PKK and shares Ocalan’s vision of democratic confederalism.

Ocalan’s theory of democratic confederalism envisions a grassroots governing system that rejects the traditional structure of a nation state, instead leaving decision-making processes and powers with local communities through institutions such as the commune. 

Networks of communes form councils at the city or regional level, which, in turn, represent those areas at higher levels of the administration.

Friday’s election will be followed by an election for town, city and regional councils in November and, next January, an election for the region’s highest office, the People’s Democratic Council, which is currently dominated by the Democratic Union Party (PYD).

The third round of the elections, which will replace current representatives who were appointed by the Self-Administration, will also include a vote for legislative councils in each of the three cantons.

The Kurdish National Council (KNC), the primary political opposition to the PYD, called for a boycott of the elections on Monday, considering them “a flagrant violation of the will of the Kurdish people.”

The KNC considers PYD rule over Kurdish territories to be illegitimate, accusing the party of taking control through “the use of force.”

“I won’t be participating in the elections because I don’t believe in the Self-Administration’s project” Farhad, a KNC supporter from the city of Amouda in northern al-Hasakah province told Syria Direct on Thursday.

The Self-Administration is “trying in every way to impose themselves, such as through elections and alliances with the west,” the shopkeeper added. 

The United States is currently backing the PYD’s armed wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces, in the fight against the Islamic State in eastern Syria.

In its call for a boycott, the KNC also accused the PYD of “attempting to deflect attention” from a separate referendum on independence for Kurds in Iraq scheduled to take place on Monday.

The KNC is an ally of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Iraqi Kurdistan.  

PYD officials first announced preparations for the local elections at the end of August, following meetings that included representatives of Kurdish, Arab, Syriac and other groups in the region.

But not all residents of the Kurdish-controlled territories are permitted to fully participate in the three election rounds that begin tomorrow.

Thousands of Arab residents who were relocated by the Syrian government to majority-Kurdish areas in the 1970s will be barred from the third and final round, Syria Direct reported in August.

Arabs “will have limited participation due to their special status,” Fouzah Youssef, co-president of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’s Executive Committee told Syria Direct at the time.

Despite Arabs being barred from full participation, Rouj Mousa, a journalist from the Afrin canton who spoke with Syria Direct on Thursday, says he does not “see preferential [treatment] of the Kurds over the Arabs in the federalist project.”

The journalist says the elections hold “great importance in the hearts of all those who live in this region,” adding that they represent the “first step to total confederalism covering all constituencies and components of the Middle East.”

“In order to build, one must begin from the foundations, which are these elections that will be held tomorrow,” he said. 

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations.