Iraqi Kurds vote for regional assembly

Smaller parties hope to end ruling establishment's grip over oil-rich autonomous region.

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IRBIL, Iraq // Voters in Iraq’s Kurdish north cast ballots on Saturday in local parliamentary elections, with smaller parties hoping to challenge the self-rule region’s longtime political establishment.

The election for the 111-seat legislature of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) comes as Iraq’s Kurds look to bolster their autonomy while insulating their increasingly prosperous enclave from the growing violence in the rest of the country and neighbouring Syria.

Security was tight for the vote. Approaches to the regional capital Irbil and other major cities were closed, and voters were searched before being allowed into polling centres.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of the Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of the regional president Massoud Barzani are looking to maintain their dominance in the face of challenges by smaller parties, including opposition group known as Gorran, or Change, that had a surprisingly strong showing in the last vote in 2009.

The KDP and PUK defend their record in keeping the region safer and more economically successful than much of the rest of Iraq, but the opposition’s charges that they tolerate graft and nepotism strike a chord with some voters.

“We are fed up with the same old politicians who have done little to serve the people. We hope that this election will bring new faces capable of combating corruption,” said Lana Ali, a teacher in Irbil who said she voted for Gorran.

The two dominant parties previously competed on a joint list but are running independently this time around.

The PUK faces a particularly tough challenge in its stronghold of Sulaimaniyah. Mr Talabani suffered a stroke in December and is recovering in a German hospital.

Safaa Al Moussawi, a spokesman for the country’s Independent High Electoral Commission, said preliminary results of the election would be available within two days.

Whatever the results, the Kurds are likely to continue to push for greater autonomy. The KRG has sparred with Baghdad for years over rights to disputed territories and the management of lucrative oil and gas reserves.

Their region has become a haven for tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war, strengthening the regional government’s role as a champion for Kurds beyond its borders.

“The [regional government] is increasingly becoming a player in regional politics. So the matter here is not only local elections, but also oil and politics,” said Khadum Al Muqdadi, an Iraqi political analyst.

A no-fly zone established by the US and Britain in 1991 helped the Kurds carve out an enclave that today is more secure than the rest of Iraq and has been a magnet for foreign investors. The three-province territory was formally recognised as an autonomous region within Iraq following the US-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Unlike in the last election in 2009, voters will not have a chance to cast ballots for the regional president. Legislators voted in June to delay presidential elections for two years, allowing Mr Barzani to remain in office over the objections of some in the opposition.

* Associated Press