Page last updated at 12:30 GMT, Friday, 31 July 2009 13:30 UK

Challenges remain after Iraqi Kurdish vote

By Jim Muir
BBC News

Change supporters - 27 July 20089
Change has emerged as a vocal opposition force

The elections in Iraqi Kurdistan have carried politics in the autonomous region into a new phase where the primacy of the two big traditional ruling parties has been challenged and shaken from within.

For the first time, the new regional parliament that emerges from the 25 July poll will have a substantial and vocal opposition, led by the new reformist movement Change.

After a long period of political stagnation in which the dominance of the two big parties was little challenged, a new culture of open criticism and scrutiny appears to have taken root.

"The opposition parties made this a lively election, and it's made us happy with the democratic process in Kurdistan," said one voter, a university professor. "People have been congratulating each other on the vote."

As had been expected, the joint list fielded by the two dominant factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, came out ahead.

But it won only 57% of the vote, which means it will have more than 20 seats fewer than last time in the 111-member chamber.

Promise of Change
The Change movement, known as Goran in Kurdish, did better than many had expected, winning more than 23 per cent of the vote.

It claimed that it would have gained more, had there not been significant fraud in areas controlled by the KDP.

Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK): 57% of vote
Change: more than 23% of vote
Services and Reform (leftist-Islamic group) 12.8%

A number of Goran offices in these areas were also attacked and ransacked by KDP loyalists, a development which was admitted and condemned by Mr Barzani.

Goran did particularly well in the Sulaimaniya area in eastern Kurdistan, a traditional stronghold of Mr Talabani's PUK.

The reform movement was headed by Mr Talabani's former deputy at the PUK, Nowshirwan Mustafa, whose call for transparency and an end to corruption led to many defections from PUK ranks.

The results were particularly disappointing for the PUK, which lost much ground on its own home patch in the parliamentary contest.

Those areas also recorded low support for the incumbent Masoud Barzani in the presidential poll, although his ally and former rival Mr Talabani had campaigned vigorously in his favour.

The weakening of the PUK, and the internal questioning that is now likely to ensue, may result in a strain on its alliance with coalition partner the KDP.

KDP elements may feel the PUK has not earned the 50% of the coalition seats to which it should be entitled.

PM uncertainly

There is also a degree of uncertainty over who should be the next prime minister of Kurdistan.

Under a long-standing agreement, it is supposed to pass from the KDP's Nechervan Barzani (the Kurdistan president's nephew) to the PUK deputy leader, Barham Salih, who is currently deputy prime minister of Iraq.

Barham Salih, Deputy PM of Iraq and possible next PM of Kurdistan
Barham Salih, Deputy PM of Iraq and possible next PM of Kurdistan

But Mr Barzani is well settled into the post, and in light of the election results, the KDP may be even more reluctant to yield it.

From Baghdad's point of view, the shakeup in the far north is not likely to change very much.

Despite lukewarm support in PUK areas, the KDP leader Masoud Barzani received nearly 70% of the vote in the presidential contest, so his authority is still strong in the Iraqi arena.

But the PUK's poor showing may raise a question over the ability of its leader, Jalal Talabani, to stand for another term of office as the Iraqi president, after the general elections scheduled for January throughout the country.

Independence and centralisation

On the big issues of dispute between Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional capital Erbil - namely oil, land and politics - the elections in the north may not make much difference.

Baghdad has been angered by Kurdistan's decision to conclude oil exploration and production-sharing agreements with outside companies, without approval from the Iraqi Oil Ministry in Baghdad.

The Kurds claim lands outside the three provinces recognised by Baghdad as Iraqi Kurdistan.

These include the oil-rich province of Kirkuk as well as many other areas stretching form the Syrian border in the west to the Iranian frontier in the east.

Baghdad fears the Kurds simply want to go their own way and seek outright independence, while the Kurds are wary of the emergence of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki as a strong figure in Baghdad advocating centralised government.

For the Kurds, this raises echoes of the persecution they suffered under Saddam Hussein.

But the elections - and the impending withdrawal of US troops from Iraq - do seem to have stimulated an awareness of the need for these problems to be addressed urgently, amidst fears of a collision if they remain unresolved when the Americans pull out.

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