Sulemaniya, Iraq // An intense, bitter and at times violent struggle for power among Iraqi Kurds, between the incumbent old guard and a new reform movement, will come to a head on Sunday when voters here go to the polls. While the rivalry between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the newcomers, Goran, has been focused heavily in the northern province of Sulemaniya - the two groups' power base - the fallout from the contest may be felt 270km south in Baghdad.
If the Kurds are again to play kingmakers in the formation of the Iraqi government, Goran, which fought its first election just eight months ago, could emerge as an influential voice on the national stage with real bargaining power. A good performance in the polls by Goran could also critically weaken the position of Jalal Talabani, head of the PUK and the current Iraqi president. Officials in Goran - which means "Change" in Kurdish - say they expect to build on their successes in last summer's provincial ballot, which saw the movement burst onto the political scene to win 23 per cent of the Kurdish vote. That was enough for it to become the first real opposition group since the establishment of the Kurds' autonomous area in northern Iraq some two decades earlier.
"There will be no single party that wins enough parliamentary seats to form a national government alone in this election," said Dana Ahmed Majeed, a senior Goran official and friend of the current Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki. "That means the Kurds will be very important in deciding the balance of power [in Baghdad], and because we are sure to win a good number of seats, that means Goran will be in a strong position."
Goran's election platform has been built on promises to end the corruption and nepotism that is rife in northern Iraq, where the two major political blocs, the PUK and allied KDP, have used their grasp on power and control of the security services to enrich party cadres and, at times, suppress their opponents. Critics accuse the KDP/PUK alliance, headed by Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, of behaving as a political mafia, handing out favours, jobs and money to their supporters, and doing little for those who refuse to swear them their allegiance.
"People are tired of the corruption, self-interest and mismanagement the KDP and PUK have brought us," said Mr Majeed, a former PUK member. "There have been achievements in Iraqi Kurdistan but not enough; we have had billions of dollars invested here and there is not much to show for it. "There are still problems with electricity, water, there is high unemployment and poverty. These things are a result of corruption and the fact the parties want to cling to power instead of letting the new generation and competent, professional people take their proper role in society."
Tension has been palpable in Sulemaniya in past weeks, with Iraq's election authorities imposing a 9pm curfew on campaigning after a series of violent incidents, including a shooting in which three Goran supporters were injured at a rally. Kurdish journalists have also complained of being attacked and intimidated by Kurdish government security forces during the campaign. The bitterness in the struggle between Goran and the PUK is caused, in large part, by the fact Goran leader Nawshirwan Mustafa used to be a senior PUK figure and the right hand of Mr Talabani. In leading a breakaway movement, PUK loyalists say, Mr Mustafa has betrayed their trust and, rather than wanting to bring about genuine reforms, is in fact making an opportunistic grab for personal power.
PUK officials insist they have launched their own anti-corruption drive and point to the stability and relative affluence of northern Iraq as a testament to their success. Their support remains strong, they say, and Goran's impressive showing in the provincial elections will not be repeated this time around. "Goran has been exposed as offering nothing new," said Ahmad Sargalu, a former Peshmerga guerrilla and influential PUK cadre. "In the provincial elections there was an excitement about it but that has worn off now. All the talk of the PUK being finished is empty."
In an effort to sway voters, the PUK has been appealing to nationalist sentiments, accusing Goran of threatening to undermine Kurdish interests in the ongoing stand-off with the Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad. Iraq's Kurds have been locked in a battle over territory and oil rights with the national authorities, a situation that at times, has brought Kurdish and Arab forces to the brink of civil war. Kirkuk, the focal point for Arab-Kurd tensions, is a key battleground between Goran and the PUK/KDP and a major election issue.
It is also a principle concern for the United States as it plans its withdrawal, with fears that Kurds and Arabs may fight over the Kirkuk when US forces leave. "Goran's agenda is dividing the Kurds and that will not help usprotect our interests in Baghdad," said Mr Sargalu. "Goran wants to set up its own political centre in Sulemaniya which will be divided from the rest of the Kurdish lands and they do not believe Kirkuk should be part of the Kurdish regional government."
Goran disputes that allegation but has sounded a more moderate tone than the PUK/KDP alliance over the contested city. Goran officials say they do believe that, pending a referendum, it should become part of the Kurdish administered area, a policy shared by the KDP/PUK. And that makes the prospect of an Arab-Kurd rapprochement under the next Iraqi government appear as elusive as it has proved under the current one, notwithstanding the coming of Goran.
"We intend to be an effective voice in the Kurdistan regional parliament and in the national parliament in Baghdad," said Mr Majeed. "On Kurdish interests, we will be united [with the KDP/PUK]. On party issues we will be an effective opposition [to the KDP/PUK]." @Email:email@example.com