'Change' makes inroads against Kurdistan's dominant parties

Its relative success in Saturday's regional election reflects deep popular dissatisfaction with official corruption.

Hadi Mizban/AP
A man consults with an electoral worker before casting his ballot in an election for the Kurd-run region at a polling site in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday.
Hadi Mizban/AP
Iraqi Lawmaker Younadem Kana casts his ballot in an election for the Kurd-run region at a polling site in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday.
Hadi Mizban/AP
Iraqi lawmaker Ahlam Assad casts her ballot in an election for the Kurd-run region at a polling site in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday.

Two parties that control Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdistan faced the first serious internal challenge to their power in decades Saturday, in a regional election that underscored deep popular dissatisfaction with official corruption and autocratic behavior.

The challenge, from a new party called Goran, or Change, could tip the balance of power in the oil-rich region.

Although official results are not expected for at least a week, preliminary reports from both sides suggest that Goran is likely to have won a substantial minority of the 111-seats in the regional parliament, though probably not enough to form a government. That power will probably still go to the leading Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which have shared power of the region for 12 years and ran in this election jointly.

Goran spokesmen claim that they won 30 or more seats, which would give them substantial political clout and could allow them to make alliances with smaller parties to create a majority.

Local officials said turnout topped 78 percent, a measure of the interest Goran stirred in the electorate. During the election, the blue flags of Goran could be seen everywhere – especially in the eastern governorate of Sulaymaniyah, a PUK stronghold.

Corruption tops voters' agenda

The Obama administration and other international players have lately focused on possible violence between Kurdistan and Baghdad over disputed, oil-rich area around Kirkuk.

But locally, people are far more vocal on the subject of corruption and nepotism.

"The corruption is infamous," says Mariwan Perwez Mariwan, the Goran representative for the Iraqi High Commission for Elections. As an example, he claims the government "will not issue licenses for new businesses unless they give a large percentage of profits to" a particular company that it's close to.

Change party officials said this weekend that they were pursuing claims of intimidation of voters and election officials. Vote monitors alleged widespread fraud in the region's other two governorates, Erbil and Dohuk, where the KDP and its leader, incumbent Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, are strongest.

Not just Change party members or election officials, many Kurds accuse the two ruling parties of rent-seeking and abuses of power. Some local businessmen say they've been pushed out of work by ruinously expensive bribes sought by officials. Others say promised jobs have not materialized. Students claim that people associated with the KDP-PUK alliance get first choice for prized university spots.

Yedga Abdullah Hassan, shopping in Sulaymaniyah on Sunday morning, says that he was "very happy" about Goran's presumed impressive showing. He, his wife, and daughter, voted for the party because he had been promised a job as a medical assistant by the standing government. They didn't deliver.

Hiwa Hassan, manager of a software shop, complained that without party support, no business could get off the ground. "They monopolize every field," he says. "After 18 years, people want to change this style of ruling system."

The man behind Goran is Nawshirwan Mustafa, a former senior leader in the PUK. His popularity in the Sulaymaniyah area has fueled the party's rise.

The challenge was so strong that PUK leader Jalal Talabani all but abandoned his work as Iraqi President to campaign furiously in Kurdistan in during last weeks before the election.

His efforts likely helped return control of parliament to the alliance, observers say. But they also point out that the days when the affairs of the region were decided by the two main parties, with little oversight, could be at an end.

Baghdad may see little change

Some voters are also hoping that a new force in parliament could herald a new era in the sensitive negotiations with Baghdad over oil rights.

"On the issue of Kirkuk the KDP and PUK were busy pursuing their own interests, and fighting with each other," says Kurdish voter Oran Musa Mohammad "If Nawshirwan wanted to make money, he could have stayed in the PUK, but he came out and he wants to work for the good of the Kurdish nation – and Kirkuk is a priority."

Although Goran promises a new approach, its policies on oil and land do not substantially differ from their rivals'. There is skepticism in Baghdad about the amount of change the Change party can effect.

"The opposition is going to be strong enough to propose alternative policies,'' says Maysun al-Damluji, an ethnic Arab member of Iraq's parliament. "However, I think what we heard from the election was that all sides agree on Kurdish national issues, so it might not affect the relationship with Baghdad all that much."

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There is a joke about corruption that swept the region ahead of Saturday's election – and illustrates why the Change party made such inroads as Kurdistan's first serious political opposition movement.

A Kurdish politician visits a friend in another country and remarks on the foreigner's sprawling villa. "How did you afford this place?" says the politician.

"See that bridge over there?" says the friend. "It was meant to cost $200 million. But we did it for $100 million, and I kept the rest."

Sometime later, the friend visits the Kurd, by now living in a vast palace."And how did you afford this?" asks the foreigner. "Well," says the Kurd, "see that bridge over there, which cost $200 million?" No, says the friend. "Exactly," says the Kurd.

It works better in Kurdish, apparently, but the joke's theme of disgust with the corruption and greed of Iraqi Kurdistan's ruling coalition captures the upswell in support for Change.

- Alice Fordham

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