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Iraqi Kurdistan’s crucial vote
By Salman Ansari Javid

The election for the presidency and parliament of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan today is expected to have a large turnout and the two main political factions, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), will face an unprecedented challenge to their 18-year monopoly on power from a slate named simply Change.

Iraqi Kurdistan is clearly the biggest beneficiary of the downfall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The people of the region have experienced a long period of peace while other regions have suffered from civilian casualties from bomb blasts, a refugee crisis, sectarian strife, and other security-related problems.

The Kurds won self-rule in 1991, after the Americans and their allies chased Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the south and then prevented him from attacking the Kurds in the north. Since then, two parties, the KDP, long a fief of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani, and the PUK, run by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s clan.

Mr. Barzani heads the most powerful Kurdish clan unchallenged, as his father did before him.

Goran, meaning change, is a new party that says it wants to improve the lives of Kurds across the northern region of Iraq. It has criticized corruption in the KDP and the PUK, accusing the two parties of doing a poor job of defending Kurdish interests in the federal parliament in Baghdad.

Change’s leader is Nawashirwan Mustafa, 65, who broke away from the PUK two years ago, saying that the KDP-PUK leadership had bred corruption, cronyism, and nepotism to the detriment of ordinary Kurds.

Mr. Mustafa uses the Wusha Foundation, a media outfit that runs a daily newspaper, a popular website, and a satellite TV station, to spread his message.

Interestingly, “Change” has been a major slogan for many politicians during recent elections, including reformist Iranian presidential candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi, U.S. President Barrack H. Obama, and Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah. Although Change’s leaders deny any conscious connection with Mr. Obama’s campaign, the movement’s official campaign slogan is “Yes, We Can Change It.”

The deputy prime minister of Iraq’s central government, Barham Salih, has been drafted by the PUK-KDP coalition to head its list during the election. If this coalition survives, Mr. Salih, a respected PUK man, may replace the Kurdish region’s incumbent prime minister, KDP member Nechirvan Barzani.

The law dictates a closed list system, where voters choose parties or coalitions rather than individual candidates. This system tends to favor voting along ethno-sectarian lines.

Kirkuk Province

Kirkuk is a fiercely disputed oil-rich province which the Kurds say they won’t “compromise” on. KRG President Barzani said Sunday, “We are committed to the application of Article 140 (of the Iraqi Constitution) and we promise that we will absolutely not compromise on this issue…” Article 140 calls for a referendum to decide the fate of Kirkuk, which the Kurds have declared as the future capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.

The dispute over Kirkuk Province has repeatedly held up legislation needed to hold the vital post-war national parliamentary elections due in January.

The region is rich in oil and gas, and the Kurdish government has signed several oil and gas production and exploration deals with foreign firms which the federal government regards as illegitimate. The Iraqi Oil Law, dictating who controls what and where, is still unarticulated.

Change, the KDP, and the PUK have the same goals for Kirkuk, but Change says with its leadership there’d be a better chance of achieving them.

Also in dispute are three other historically Kurdish-populated provinces of Diyala, Nineveh, and Salahuddin.

The Kurdish region has a 100-seat assembly. 11 seats are reserved for minorities such as Turkmen and Christians. During the last election in 2005, the PUK-KDP alliance won all but seven of the 100 parliamentary seats up for grabs.

Photo: Supporters of the Change list parade in Sulaymaniya, in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region. (Photo by Los Angeles Times


 

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