THE Kurds of northern Iraq, who go to the polls on Sunday for their first-ever free elections, have taken to democracy as though to the manner born.
From the cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah in the plains to the remotest mountain hamlets, election fervor has dominated life in Iraqi Kurdistan since the campaigning began two weeks ago.
The flags and banners of the eight contending parties sprout gaily from houses, shops, cars and buses throughout the Kurdish area. The vying parties spread their message from hundreds of stalls and tents, with loudspeakers blaring incessantly.
Party leaders have been out and about, touring the cities and outlying centers to drum up support and encourage the faithful. Some of the rallies have drawn crowds of up to 100,000 and sparked scenes of wild enthusiasm which would be the envy of many a Western politician.
Amazingly, given the fact that the contending factions and their followers are armed to the teeth, there have been few incidents of violence or friction. The few that could be attributed to election rivalry have been swiftly controlled by party bosses, mindful of the bloodbath that could ensue if feelings ran out of control.
It is a double poll, in which the voters, estimated at around 1.2 million, will be electing 100 deputies to a new Kurdish National Assembly, or parliament, and also choosing between four candidates for the quasi-presidential title of "Leader."
The campaigning has been dominated by the two major parties and their leaders, both of whom are contending directly for the post of Leader as well as seeking a parliamentary majority.
It may well be a close-fought contest. Though Massoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are regarded as the front runners by some observers, Jalal Talabani and his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) enjoy majority support in some areas.
Predictions are hazardous because there is no precedent for such free elections in Kurdistan. No proper census has been taken, and even the size of the electoral roll is a guess.
Voters have to present themselves either with a valid Iraqi identity card, or with a special election registration card issued to those who are deemed to be over 18 and eligible to vote. Once they vote, their hands will be stamped with a special indelible ink brought in from Germany in hopes of deterring double-voting.
Doctors throughout the Kurdish area have been busy examining teenage would-be voters, looking for such tell-tale features as molar teeth to weed out the underaged.
"The election is good, because at least each of the parties will know its true size," Mr. Talabani says. His followers believe victory will be narrowly theirs, while Mr. Barzani confidently predicts that his own KDP will garner between 50 and 60 percent of parliamentary seats.
The two men have been at pains to calm fears that victory by one side would be disputed by the other and lead to violence between followers, who have shed each other's blood several times in the past. Both leaders have pledged to abide by the outcome and to work together afterward.
The two men are most deeply at odds over how the Kurds should proceed in their current predicament. Ringed and harassed by Iraqi government forces that are imposing a harsh food and fuel blockade, they are entirely dependent on the Western coalition allies for protection from Saddam's revenge.
Barzani, who recently visited Turkey, Britain, France and Germany, believes the coalition powers will not support anything that looks like independence for the Kurds, fearing that would threaten Iraq's integrity and stir up restless Kurdish minorities in Turkey and Iran.
He therefore favors a return to the talks on Kurdish autonomy with Saddam that were broken off last year - provided that Iraqi forces ringing Kurdistan to the south call off the blockade imposed since last fall. How else, he argues, can the Kurds gain a normal life and end their vulnerable dependence on the West.
Barzani's cautious, minimalist approach contrasts with Talabani's more flamboyant and ambitious positions. Appealing subliminally to the Kurds' deep- seated yearning for independence, he calls for "Kurdish self-determination within democratic Iraq."
He rules out any agreement with Saddam, arguing that it would mean the return of the hated secret police and strengthen Saddam at a time when every effort should be made to topple him.
Given Baghdad's hostility to the elections, it may not in fact make that much differnce who wins, since prospects for an accord with Saddam appear slight. What Kurds hope is that the poll will legitimize their leadership, giving it greater authority to fill the administrative and legal vacuum in Kurdistan.
They also hope it will make it that much more difficult for the West to turn its back on them. "The Western governments will be encouraged and persuaded to deal with the real representatives and listen to the real voice of the Kurdish people," says Talabani.