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Iraqi Kurds Vote In Regional Elections

An Iraqi Kurd peshmerga drops his ballot at a polling station in Irbil

An Iraqi Kurd peshmerga drops his ballot at a polling station in Irbil

Voters went to the polls on July 25 in Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish north to choose a new parliament and president.

With some 2.5 million voters eligible, the elections are the second held since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. At stake are all 111 seats in the regional legislative assembly, plus the post of regional president.

Polls closed after Iraq's election commission extended voting by an hour because some voters could not find their names on electoral lists.

Although the region is relatively peaceful, the dual election is taking place under tight security -- some 20,000 troops have been deployed, and voters are allowed to travel to polling stations only on foot or by state-authorized buses.

The vote comes amid a bitter feud with Baghdad's government over land and oil.

Most Kurds disagree with Baghdad over how Iraq's vast oil resources should be developed and how the revenues should be spent. Kurdistan in June began exporting oil for the first time, shipping crude through a pipeline to neighboring Turkey.

Directly Elected President

This is the first time Iraqi Kurds elect a president directly, and incumbent Masud Barzani, a former guerrilla leader, is widely tipped to defeat the four other candidates. Barzani was elected last time by the Kurdish parliament.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, himself a Kurd, turned up early at a polling station in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya and described the day as a "feast" for the Kurdish people.

"I hope that all take part and exercise their rights and democratic freedoms, this is one of their basic rights. This is the third time that free elections are being held where the people of Iraq's Kurdistan can exercise their rights to vote," Talabani said.

The big established parties are also expected to prevail, but a new reformist party may give them a shock.

The political scene in Iraqi Kurdistan has long been dominated by two entities – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Kurdistan President Masud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Once bitter rivals, they have in recent years combined their efforts and plan to run on a single "Kurdistani List" in these legislative elections, as they did in the last elections four years ago.

This broadly centrist bloc has overwhelming advantages in resources, patronage, clan loyalties, and general organization.

Analysts say the two main parties are likely to remain dominant, but could lose some votes because of public dissatisfaction over the economy, corruption and poor services.

In the last election they together won 78 seats in the 111-seat legislative assembly.

Opposition Growth

Joost Hiltermann, the deputy director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa program, says that "the nature of the Kurdistan
region's government in the next few years" is at stake.

"Is it going to be an accountable government? Is it going to be a government that governs effectively? One of the main criticisms [of the present government] has been that it doesn't govern. It hasn't delivered services. And I think the presence of a vigorous opposition in parliament could aid that," Hiltermann says.

Kurdistan's President Barzani has called on the public and parties to respect political pluralism and said that no party must "demonize" another. He said he wants Kurds to feel "completely free" to pick whichever party they want.

Some 22 entities, mostly blocs gathering small parties, are contesting the poll with a total of 509 candidates.

However, despite Barzani's comments, some parties complain of bullying by the big parties. One newcomer in particular feels it has been singled out for attention.

It is the Goran ("Change") list, led by Nushirwan Mustafa, a former deputy to Talabani in the PUK.

Reporters on the scene say Goran's logo -- an orange candle on a dark blue background -- is on display everywhere, on busses, balloons, T-shirts, and caps.

Mustafa broke away from PUK, taking many party officials and rank-and-file members with him, in the belief that the two main parties' stranglehold on nearly all aspects of life in Kurdistan have led to corruption and cronyism, to the detriment of the ordinary man in the street.

It seems to have given the established parties a scare, because Goran officials say that government employees with links to their party have been dismissed, obviously as a deterrent.

They say a senior army officer has been arrested for supporting Goran. And they claim party members in one town were shot at.

Islamic Parties

Two Islamic parties, the Islamic Group and the Islamic Union, are contesting the vote, and are expected to make some gains at the expense of the big two.

"These elections will see the emergence of a real and viable opposition. I don't think we're at the stage yet where the opposition could take power from the ruling parties, but I think we will see the Goran list and the Islamic parties emerging as a viable opposition in the Kurdish parliament, and that is a very significant change because both lists are running on a program of fighting corruption, which is widespread, and are calling for transparency and accountability, " Hiltermann says.

"If they win a significant number of seats in the parliament, say a third, they could really push the ruling coalition to be less corrupt."

The election is being overseen by the Independent High Election Commission of Iraq, which supervised the country's provincial-council elections in January. The counting of ballots will be done in neutral Baghdad, a move designed to ensure that ballots are not tampered with.

The vote will be observed by international observers from the United States and the European Union.

UN monitor Hakim Shahwan told Reuters in Arbil that turnout was high and described the atmosphere as "positive."

Polling stations close at 6 p.m. local time. The official count is expected to take up to three days.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq contributed to this report