Page last updated at 17:58 GMT, Friday, 24 July 2009 18:58 UK

Iraqi Kurds vote in 'vibrant' elections

By Jim Muir
BBC News, Suleimaniya, Iraqi Kurdistan

An electoral worker empties a ballot box containing the votes cast a day before by Kurds in the army, police, prison or the emergency services in the northern Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, some 330kms from Baghdad, on July 24, 2009.
Kurds in the army and police cast their votes the day before the election

Voters in Kurdistan in northern Iraq go to the polls on Saturday in a double election, to choose a new parliament and a president for their autonomous region.

The elections have been the most vibrant and exciting since 1992, when the Kurds held their first-ever free polls after winning de facto autonomy.

That first election saw a massive turnout, with huge crowds of Kurds besieging the polling stations until after midnight, thrilled by the novelty of choosing their own leaders by ballot.

The choice at that time was basically between the two big factions which emerged out of decades of armed opposition to Baghdad - the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headed by Masood Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by the current Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani.

Beside the financial corruption, we have nepotism and cronyism too
Noshirwan Mustafa
Leader of Change movement

The two groups went on to battle one another in a vicious civil war in the mid-1990s which has left many lingering resentments and grudges below the surface.

But they later mended their fences, unified their rival governments and set up a coalition government, presenting joint lists of candidates in elections for the regional parliament.

So recent polls have been pretty dull affairs with no real issues or significant competition, simply consolidating the rule of the two big parties.

This one has been very different.

For the first time, the two factions have faced a serious challenge, launched by reformists from within their own ranks.

Party faithfulls attend a rally in support of the "Change list" led by Nusherwan Mustafa, a former number two in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah, on July 22, 2009
The Change movement has support among the young and the poor

Leading the charge is Noshirwan Mustafa, a former stalwart of the PUK who was President Talabani's deputy in the party until he split off.

The movement launched by Mr Mustafa took the word Change (Goran in Kurdish) as both its title and its slogan.

It attracted an impressive upsurge of support, especially among the young and the poor, most visibly in the PUK-influenced areas in eastern Kurdistan, including the big city of Suleimaniya.

Mr Mustafa's denunciation of the corruption, nepotism and cronyism which he says riddles the two big factions, evidently struck a chord.

Vigorous campaigning

Suleimaniya and adjacent areas have seen big rallies and spontaneous noisy demonstrations by Change supporters, waving the movement's blue flag emblazoned with a white candle.

Support for the movement in traditional KDP areas to the west, such as Erbil and Duhok, has been more muted.

But even there, the Change movement has provided the big talking-point, with unverifiable rumours that many plan to vote for it without declaring their support for fear of reprisals such as losing their jobs.

The two big factions rose to the challenge, plunging into weeks of vigorous campaigning with an unprecedented sense of urgency and purpose.

A poster of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, right, President of the Autonomous Kurdish Government and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, ahead of regional elections
Posters show Iraqi President Talabani, left, and Kurdish President Barzani

Reflecting the seriousness of the challenge, Mr Talabani laid aside his day-job as the whole country's president and has been addressing rallies throughout Kurdistan, promoting his own PUK and its KDP allies for parliament, and Masood Barzani for the Kurdistan presidency.

Mr Barzani is already President of Kurdistan, and is seeking re-election in a contest which for the first time is being held as a direct popular vote.

There are four other candidates challenging him. None is expected to come close.

But the fact that they are standing at all is significant, given Mr Barzani's prestige.

His father, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, pioneered the Iraqi Kurdish struggle for freedom from Baghdad.

But one of the presidential candidates is something of a political embarrassment to President Talabani.

I think that the Kurdish people and Kurdish society still need these two parties to consolidate what we have
Jalal Talabani
President of Iraq, backing the current coalition

It is his own brother-in-law, Halo Ibrahim Ahmad.

"Kurdistan needs new thinking and it needs new policies," said Mr Ahmad.

"The economy, corruption, lack of transparency in the workings of the parliament and government - all this has created a lot of pressure from the grassroots, from the man on the street, for change."

But Noshirwan Mustafa's defection, after 40 years in the PUK, is far more damaging, and his movement has shaken the foundations of the Kurdish political establishment.

He told the BBC he had decided to mount his challenge after failing to bring about reform from within.

"The political parties [are] interfering in everything, in the parliament, in the cabinet, in the universities, in the market, in the judiciary powers," he said.

"Beside the financial corruption, we have nepotism and cronyism too. If you are not a relative of one of the leaders, or a member of one of the political parties, you have no chance to be a minister, deputy minister, general director, ambassador, or anything else."

'Still in business'

President Talabani said he was personally saddened by Mr Mustafa's defection after decades of loyalty to the party.

He has pledged reforms, and publicly stated that he wants another party stalwart, Barham Salih, to be the next prime minister of Kurdistan.

Mr Salih is currently the deputy prime minister of Iraq and is a reform-minded technocrat.

But the Kurdistan premiership is currently held by Masood Barzani's nephew Netchervan, and the KDP is believed to be reluctant to relinquish the post.

While acknowledging faults, President Talabani insists the PUK and KDP are still in business.

"Both parties I think are still popular among the people," he told the BBC.

"They have their mistakes, of course. There are some shortcomings. They are not angels coming from the sky. Like ordinary people they are making mistakes of course.

"But I think that the Kurdish people and Kurdish society still need these two parties to consolidate what we have, and to gain what we are still struggling to achieve."

The two big factions also mounted huge rallies and clearly still command a great deal of support, as well as controlling an entrenched network of patronage.

"They gave us a government and institutions, and Kurdistan is more prosperous than most countries in the region," said 20-year-old computer science student Saz, who said she planned to vote for the ruling coalition.

"I really believe it will be much better this time, and the Change movement will encourage the two parties to perform better because it has woken them up."

Election arithmetic

But many people in the streets of Suleimaniya and at Change rallies had a different view.

"We didn't see any service for our nation, we have two parties just working for themselves, collecting money and power," said one Change supporter.

"My whole family want to change this government and parliament, and let the parliament return to the people, not the parties," said a middle-aged man with a young son at a Change rally.

Suleimaniya, where Change has clearly had an impact, fills 42 seats from the 100 in contention (11 others are reserved for minorities).

Some optimistic Change supporters believe they will take more than half of the Suleimaniya seats, add some more from Erbil and Dohuk, and have enough to hook up with other opposition groups - the Islamists and leftists who have around 20 seats in the current chamber - and block the two big factions from forming a majority.

But even if Change only gets 15 or 20 seats, or even less, as other predictions maintain, it will be enough to give it a vocal presence in parliament and introduce an element of challenge that has been lacking so far.

"It is a new experience," said Noshirwan Mustafa.

"For the first time, we are trying to create opposition inside parliament, and real competition between the parties.

"For the first time, we opened the door to the younger generation - our list includes about 30 men and women under 30. And for the first time we will try to bring to parliament people who are not party members."

Political analysts say the campaign has reinvigorated Kurdish politics, which after an 11-year head start had begun to lag behind the rest of Iraq.

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