News from Michael Tomlinson MP
This month my column should be called not “from Westminster” but "from Iraq". I have recently returned from a trip to Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurdistan is a semi-autonomous region of Iraq, and they held a referendum on being an independent country, a bit like the Scottish Independence referendum. I was there, based in the capital Erbil, as part of a delegation from the UK who were observing the referendum, to help demonstrate whether the vote was fair and open.
It was a fascinating trip, both seeing the country and learning more about the region’s history and culture. The ballot papers were in five different languages, which gives a flavour of the differing backgrounds and cultures of the local people. Traditionally, Kurdistan has been a more Western-looking part of Iraq, with famously fierce fighters (the Peshmergas) who have been extremely successful in assisting in the removal of ISIL / Da'esh from the region.
Kurdistan is generally considered to be a more progressive Muslim area in Iraq, with many Christians living peacefully alongside their Muslim neighbours. We visited the Archbishop in Kirkup, where there is a Christian community of around 5,000 and the Archbishop is in charge of the many Christian denominations there including Catholics, Protestants, Chaldeans, Assyrians and more.
Polling day itself had quite a few differences to how we vote; all voters had to produce valid ID before voting, and after voting they had their finger stained with purple ink, to prevent them voting twice – lots of children were keen to have their fingers inked too! The staff were rigorous in all their checks, which led to queues at many polling stations, but the general mood was buoyant, and there was a festive atmosphere. There was a sense of occasion, with many people dressing up to go to vote – in traditional costume, in smart clothes, with some women in some quite resplendent and glamorous dresses. It was also really good to see that families often brought young children, some of whom were also dressed to the nines, wearing national colours and enjoying the atmosphere, to the polling places. This is definitely a culture we should adopt, to help encourage the next generation to vote.
There were many demonstrations of a patriotic nature such as car cavalcades with waving flags and hooting horns, and homes and businesses displayed "Yes" posters and national flags. There seemed particular excitement in Kirkuk, where participation in the referendum had seemed uncertain. Just like in Britain, the polling stations themselves were neutral in terms of referendum material.
Initial results show that the vote was 93% in favour of independence, though the legality was rejected by the federal government in Baghdad. It is not clear what will happen next, but the vote itself was free and fair, with people being able to vote peacefully and I hope that it leads to fruitful negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad.
Visiting a country that in such recent history had little democracy, reminded me how lucky we are in Britain that we are able to hold free and fair elections, where we do not fear police brutality when voting, and that we have freedom of speech.