Iraqi Kurdistan heads to the polls

Voters mobilise to change what they see as a corrupt system, they will pass under a mass of blue banners representing the Goran - Change - party.

Change party supporters hold a rally outside the new party's headquarters in Sulemaniya on the last day of campaigning before the Kurdistan regional elections, Wednesday, July 22, 2009.
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SULEIMANIYAH, IRAQ // Here, democracy is a blue flag. From the pomegranate groves of the Iranian border to the city's main drag, as the people of this eastern governorate of Iraqi Kurdistan walk to the polls today, they will pass under a mass of blue banners representing the Goran - Change - party. In a fragile Iraq, international eyes see Kurdish issues as volatile disputes between the autonomous region and leaders in Baghdad over territory or oil. But people in Suleimaniyah say their main concern is a ruling authority which, once revered for its fight for Kurdish independence, has become corrupt and unfair.

"I would say 80 per cent of the people are not happy," said Shara ai Saed, 26, a trainee librarian sitting outside Suleimaniyah's public library, who complained that while this was not the job she wanted, only people connected to the ruling parties could find good jobs. "There are some things which are apparently only for a few people. They neglected poor people and even middle class people over the years," she said.

Other people in Suleimaniyah alleged that there is a political system of patronage which sees jobs and contracts awarded according to connections, bribery being necessary to start businesses or projects and government budgets being embezzled rather than used to provide services. This region is the centre of support for Goran, a breakaway group which represents the first major challenge to the coalition of the People's Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which has ruled the region since reconciling after a civil war in the 1990s.

Led by a former PUK leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa, on an anti-corruption, anti-nepotism ticket, the party has attracted an enthusiastic following. There have been midnight convoys of cars and buses honking horns and streaming the party's blue flag with its candle logo out of their windows. Rallies have attracted tens of thousands of people, supporters have lit candles together and there is an excitement about voting which is, people say, new. Kamaran Bakie, 49, is part of the electoral committee responsible for voter rolls and procedure in today's vote. He was not keen to express support for one party, but had a Goran pamphlet on his desk when he said that people, "are much more excited compared with the past. Many people came into the voting station to check [they were eligible to vote]; they were not doing this before."

"New people and qualified people," he went on, "will be able to lead the country better ? people are thinking about the wealth of the nation, which should be managed in a good way." There is a lot of money in the oil-rich region, he said, "but it is not clear where it is spent ? only a few services are provided for the people." Despite the energy of this opposition ? a drive through the countryside around Suleimaniyah revealed Goran meetings in rural backwaters in the midday heat under makeshift shelters - their support is far more limited in the region's two other governorates of Erbil and Dohuk.

The ruling coalition is likely to win a majority of the parliament's 111 seats, and in the presidential elections, conducted at the same time, Massoud Barzani, leader of the KDP whose red-turbaned image is ubiquitous, is almost certain to be re-elected. However, Goran could still bring about change. Joost Hiltermann of International Crisis Group (ICG), who is working on a report into democracy in the area, said, "the emergence of opposition might provoke better governance" and a reduction in corruption.

Although the KDP representative Safeen Dizayee suggested that Goran's existence is a consequence of fighting among the PUK, saying, "this may be a vendetta rather than a challenge," and adding that charges of party corruption "[depend on] how corruption is defined." He did say that, "for sure there is mismanagement, for sure some people are making personal gains." The Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani earlier this month lamented that, "lately, it has become popular, and fashionable, I must add, to accuse the government of corruption," but then announced that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) had commissioned a report into good governance from consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers. He then announced wide-ranging civil and governmental reforms and new codes of conduct.

The attitudes and affiliations of the new KRG parliament matter for the future of Iraq. They will be closely analysed by Iraqi and American leaders in particular, among whom concerns about Kurdish claims on land are intensifying after near-clashes in disputed territories around the northern cities of Kirkuk and Mosul. Nouri al Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, raised the issue during his visit to Washington, DC this week, calling the tension with Kurds, "one of the most dangerous issues that have been a concern for all the Iraqi government" the day after meeting with Barack Obama, the US president, adding that the tension "needs to be resolved".

Incidents in recent weeks have included a stand-off between Iraqi army forces whose troops were prevented from entering the Kurd-dominated town of Makhmour between Mosul and Kirkuk, in an area which the KRG claims as part of Kurdistan. Although the Iraqi army troops left after negotiations, without violence, there is growing concern that these incidents will become more common and violent. Mr Hiltermann pointed out that as national Iraqi elections approach in January next year, Mr al Maliki has a political interest in emphasising Arab-Kurd tensions as he reaches out to Sunni leaders and stresses nationalism in his speeches.

"There could easily be a combination of rhetoric, of military moves and further attempts to drive a military vehicle into areas dominated by Kurds in order to show the flag, provoke, create an incident and set Arab and Kurd nationalism against each other," Mr Hiltermann said. Kurdish leaders, meanwhile, are concerned that if they avoid confrontation with Iraqi forces, they will be in a weaker position to negotiate on territory after Iraqi elections. They fear elections could see Mr al Maliki allying with Sunni groups, against whom there is long-standing suspicion in Kurdistan, which suffered atrocities under the Sunni Baathist Saddam Hussein regime.

The rebuilding of Kurdistan from the devastation and chaos left after Saddam's regime, in which thousands of civilians were killed in chemical and other attacks, and the majority of the region's villages destroyed, is often cited by KRG officials as evidence of their achievements. Kurdish refugees are returning to the area in a way they have not in the rest of Iraq, said Kahsro Goran, the head of the KDP in Nineveh province.

But in the town of Halabja, in which thousands of people died in chemical attacks by Iraqi forces during the Iran-Iraq war, resentment at neglect by the KRG is matched by the vigorous support for the Goran movement. "Halabja is one place that suffered a lot," said Peshko Hama Fares Mohammed, a local human rights worker and Goran supporter, "but [the KRG] were not able to solve the problems or get back the personality of Halabja."

Citing high unemployment, lack of investment and low compensation for the families of those who died, Mr Mohammed said that there were more than 5,000 government employees in Halabja ? "but they are not productive or useful". A monument built to honour those who died was attacked and burnt by local people in 2006, in what Mr Mohammed called, "revenge for the government not giving them services". "The monument," he said, "represents the victims, but people realised that the authorities were exploiting it for their own benefits. They took care of the monument but neglected the people."

Passing little boys with bicycles decked in Goran flags, Mr Mohammed said most of the town supported the movement except government workers, who had been threatened with dismissal if they joined. Halajba is nestled in the mountains next to Iran, and Mr Mohammed was not the first to raise the idea that Goran supporters could, if they felt the elections has been fraudulent despite the thousands of election monitors, hold demonstrations similar to the recent Tehran uprisings.

"If they think the election is fixed, the people will demonstrate," he said. "This is not following Iran, it is related to Iraqi Kurdistan," he stressed, "but if there is cheating in the election, nobody can accept it." * The National