There’d been elections before, of course.
Before there even was an Iraq to speak of, there was the 1921 referendum that the British used to legitimise their chosen king (and, by extension, their post-war mandate over Mesopotamia). Then there were a multitude of rigged elections where men could vote for the Iraqi parliament as long as they didn’t vote for Shiites too often, and even Saddam Hussein allowed the odd election in which he would run unopposed, securing between 99.96% and 100% of the vote each time.
But you’d have to wait until 1992 for an election that felt important, for an election that felt as though the voice of the electorate could actually impact the future.
After the Gulf War left the Iraqi army depleted and weak, a Kurdish uprising in the north took advantage, expelling Iraqi forces from the Kurdish cities. Saddam’s retaliation was swift and brutal, leading hundreds of thousands of now homeless Kurds to flee towards the Turkish and Iranian borders. The UN hurried to implement a humanitarian operation, establishing two no-fly zones in the north and south of the country. Barely six months later, Iraq’s Kurds held their first election.
The no-fly zones allowed for previously persecuted people to—not entirely legally—enter and exit the Kurdish regions via the Turkish, Syrian, and Iranian border regions which were no longer guarded by Iraqi military. My parents were thus able to return for the first time since they had fled the region over a decade prior, and so, were able to bring my sister and me to this place called home, this place in the midst of an electoral frenzy.
To this day I have never experienced anything quite like the thrill of a people allowed to vote for the first time. There were slogans shouted in every square, public debates that continued well into the night, posters that covered every surface. Children were covered in buttons for nationalist parties, tribal parties and Islamic parties alike. Men argued in every tea house over whether to vote for the Marxist-Leninist party, the Trotskyist party, or the Maoist party. Each political faction had their own color—a simple identifier in a region where many were still illiterate—which also led to wild urban legends like the one where proponents of the yellow party blinded a boy with green eyes, the color of their closest rivals.
The most important color in this election, however, was blue. After being used successfully in Indian elections, bottles of indelible ink were imported from Germany for people to dip their fingers into after voting, so as to prevent voter fraud. 24 hours before the planned election date, however, electoral observers at various polling stations found that the indelible ink that they had ordered could in fact be easily rubbed off.
The election, so eagerly awaited, had to be postponed for three days, so that local scientists would have time to provide an ink they claimed could not be removed.
They were wrong.
Across Kurdistan people voted as many times as they could, washing the ink off with solvents and happily heading to the next polling station. When the ballots were counted, the two biggest political parties accused each other of electoral fraud, and in order to deflate rapidly rising tensions, a power-sharing agreement was reached, partly eschewing the actual results in favour of an uneasy peace that devolved into a brutal civil war a few years later. I remember the enthusiasm that led up to the election give way to a bitterness, a disappointment. We tried, we failed.
By the time I was old enough to vote myself, that initial faith in the democratic process had faded, and the electorate had grown cynical amid claims of ballot stuffing and forged votes. Still, I must admit I was still a kind of thrilled to vote in the election for the Iraqi parliament in 2005. Saddam had been toppled, and so I was suddenly deemed an Iraqi in the eyes of the law. I was living in Dubai at the time and the polling station was, for whatever reason, located a good hour’s drive from Dubai—not towards Abu Dhabi which might be the expected direction, but inlands, deep in the desert. Unable to drive a car, I took a taxi towards the nothingness. As my very confident taxi driver drove further away from the city than I had ever been before and skyscrapers grew small in the rearview mirror, giving off the shimmer of a mirage, I began entertaining wild fantasies that I was going to be kidnapped, or murdered, or at the very least that I had been given false information regarding the whereabouts of this polling station. Then, finally, a makeshift tent appeared in the distance, with a queue of voters snaking around it.
I paid the taxi driver the fare, and asked him to keep the meter running for my return back into the city. I wouldn’t be long, I told the man I had believed was going to kill me only ten minutes prior.
He did not wait for me. By the time I had voted and made my way back outside, someone else had nabbed the cab. Panicked, I looked around, trying to figure out how I was going to get back home. The afternoon sun was scorching, and there was no cell phone reception.
Waiting for another voter to come out of the tent to be able to perhaps hitch a ride, I started rubbing my stained finger, to see if the ink would come off.
Time passed, and still I stood alone in the desert.
I kept rubbing.