First 'truly democratic' Kurd polls

Iraq's Kurds voted yesterday in what is being viewed here as the first truly competitive election contest since the area gained autonomy.

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Sulemaniyah, iraq // Iraq's Kurds voted yesterday in what is being viewed here as the first truly competitive election contest since the area gained autonomy almost two decades ago, although there have already been allegations of fraud. Since 1991, politics and power in Iraqi Kurdistan have been firmly in the grip of two major groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), with little opposition.

This year, however, the KDP and PUK, fighting the election on a joint ticket, faced competition to their stranglehold from the Change List, "Goran" in Kurdish, a group formed six months ago by disaffected former PUK members which has helped to quietly revolutionise the Kurds' political scene. Where previous elections were viewed as a formality that would inevitably rubber stamp the ruling parties' status, this year's ballot has generated excitement among the 2.5 million eligible voters in Iraq's Kurdish north.

Polling stations opened at 8am across the three Kurdish provinces, not including disputed areas in Kirkuk, Diyala and Ninewa, and closed at 7pm after an hour long extension. More than 1,000 independent international observers were deployed across the region, with each polling station also watched by multi-party election monitors who were able to register complaints about vote rigging. Despite such precautions, opposition groups have filed complaints, claiming that large numbers of pro-KDP/PUK soldiers were allowed to vote twice, today as well as on Thursday.

There have also been concerns about significant numbers of would-be voters being turned away from polling stations in some cases because they were not recorded on registration lists. Iraq's independent High Electoral Commission will investigate the allegations. Of those, 11 places are allocated for minorities, five for Turkomans, five for Assyrians and one for Armenians. At least 30 seats are reserved for women under Kurdish election laws.

With no reliable polling information, and with the result not likely to be announced for at least a week, just how many seats each party is likely to get remains a matter of conjecture. In the previous parliament, the KDP/PUK had 104 seats. Some expect that to be cut down this time around to as few as 60, with the KIU and Change perhaps taking 40 between them. The growth of a political alternative to the KDP/PUK comes amid increasing public discontent about corruption, something rife in Iraq, and failures to sufficiently improve public services. Billions of dollars have been spent - much drawn from national oil revenues to the ire of the central authorities in Baghdad - with comparatively little to show for it, according to Kurdish critics.

"The big parties have done good things but their time is up," said Zak Zandi, a 28 year-old resident of Erbil, the Kurds' administrative capital. "People are complaining that too much money has gone missing, that there should have been more progress. "Government budgets have been huge and too much money has gone missing or  been stolen. That's why people want to vote for someone outside the government - 18 years is long enough to know if someone is doing their job properly."

Mr Zandi used to work as a high school teacher, earning a salary of US$200 (Dh733) a month - not a living wage in modern Iraqi Kurdistan - before getting a better paid job as an interpreter with an American company. He said he would be voting for the Change List. "Change has promised to review public sector pay," he said. "They will raise basic salaries and cut the money going to the highest officials, parliament members and big political leaders who are making huge money at the expense of the normal people."

Senior members of the two main political parties have publicly acknowledged concerns about corruption and nepotism and have welcomed the challenge from the newly invigorated opposition. "This time the elections are completely different from the past two elections," said Sherwan Haidary, chairman of the KDP's parliamentary group. "There are so many lists and political parties involved, there is real competition and we believe this is the first election that takes us to democracy. The people are happy with this."

Mr Haidary said he believed the KDP/PUK would win an outright majority, and that the KDP's leader, Massoud Barzani, would comfortably secure another term as president of Iraqi Kurdistan. The presidential election, the first time voters have been able to directly choose their leader, happened alongside the parliamentary vote, with four candidates taking part. Mr Barzani was widely expected to sweep the polls.

"Change will win seats and we accept that you need to have real opposition in order to have a democracy and to improve the situation here," Mr Haidary said. "But their programme of reform and tackling corruption is something that we have already been implementing. It's a slow process." The Change List remains an unknown quantity. With a power base in Sulemaniyah and south-eastern areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, it claims hundreds of thousands of supporters, many of whom are former PUK members, making the two parties' rivalry particularly charged. There have been reports of minor clashes between supporters of the PUK and the Change List in Sulemaniyah, and there are fears of Iranian-style protests if the election result were to be declared fraudulent by the teams of independent monitors.

Change is led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, the wealthy director of a media company who co-founded the PUK before falling out with its other main leader, Jalal Talabani, the president of Iraq. Critics of the new group say it is more interested in securing a slice of power and privilege for itself than in reform. "When we started out we knew a lot of people were unhappy and complaining about the situation but we didn't think we get as much support as we have," said Shaho Saeed, one of the Change List's senior candidates. "We don't know how many supporters we have or how many seats we might win but we believe that the change has already started, whatever the outcome. Things will not be the same again."

The election has taken place against a bitter and dangerous argument between Erbil and Baghdad over how much autonomy the Kurds should have and how far their largely independent area should extend. Kurds insist that oil-rich Kirkuk should fall under their administration, something the Arab majority in southern and central Iraq has refused to allow. After casting his vote yesterday morning, Mr Barzani first promised that, if re-elected, he would  respect the result even if his party lost. Secondly, he promised to bring Kirkuk fully under Kurdish control, putting him firmly on a collision course with the Arab-dominated central Iraqi authorities in Baghdad.