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Expert Focuses On Significance Of Iraq's Kurdish Regional Elections

Joost Hiltermann
Joost Hiltermann
Voters in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region go to the polls on July 25 for parliamentary elections and a ballot on their next president. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz spoke with Joost Hiltermann, deputy director of the International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa program, about the forces involved and the significance of the elections.

RFE/RL: Let's start by discussing the history of the main political forces that are contesting the parliamentary and presidential elections in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

Hiltermann: The Kurdistan region has long had two ruling parties which used to be liberation movements -- guerillas based in the mountains who came down in 1991 after the Gulf War and then took over governing the region following elections in 1992. They are the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). In 1992, they got an almost equal number of votes. And so they have been in coalition, essentially, ever since -- even though they competed with one another vigorously on the ground.

In the new elections, they are running jointly on one list, called the Kurdistani List. But again, they are competing in many ways with one another. What has changed now is that the PUK has fallen apart and now consists of the original PUK [while there is a] new list called the "Change List" -- the Goran List -- which is headed by the former No. 2 in the PUK [Nawshirwan Mustafa], the deputy to Iraqi President Jalal Talibani. He is now independent and running on his own list. So the PUK is much weakened because of that.

RFE/RL: What do you think will be the most important developments stemming from the elections?

These elections will see the emergence of a real and viable opposition. I don't think we are at a stage yet where the opposition could take over power from the ruling parties -- the KDP and PUK. But I think we will see the Goran List, as well as the Islamists, emerging as a viable opposition in the Kurdish parliament. And that is a very significant change because both lists are running on a platform of fighting corruption -- which is widespread in the Kurdistan region as it is in the rest of Iraq -- and are calling for greater transparency and accountability.

If they win a significant number of seats -- let's say a third of the Kurdish parliament -- then they could really push the ruling coalition to become less corrupt. And that would be great progress.

RFE/RL: In the broad scheme, what is at stake in the vote?

What is at stake is very much the nature of the Kurdistan region's government in the next few years. Is it going to be an accountable government? Is it going to be a government that governs effectively? One of the main criticisms 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.

RFE/RL: To what do you attribute the emergence of what you describe as "a viable opposition" in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq? And what will you be focusing on as indicators of the future political direction of the opposition when you study the election results?

In the past, the failure of the main parties to govern effectively and provide services to people -- and worse, their internal fight -- it gave stimulus to the Islamists. And they have gained ground. But they also have been pushed back in many ways through intimidation. The Islamists are definitely up and coming. They are the young Islamists. They are in the educational institutions. They are the most motivated among the students. I think this is a very potent strain that is emerging.

The other opposition, of course, is secular. And that is the Goran List -- which came out of the PUK. The big question is whether the Goran List will only draw votes from disaffected PUK members, or will it also draw on disaffected KDP members. Also, how widespread is the support for the Islamists? Will it come from both the PUK and the KDP in all geographic areas? Or is it be limited to some areas? It is not so much the emergence of an opposition but also the make up of the opposition and the divide between the secularists and the Islamists -- and who gains the upper hand in the long term?

RFE/RL: In June, the Kurdish region's parliament approved a new draft constitution. The parliament also voted to conduct a public referendum on that draft constitution this Saturday [July 25]. But that referendum has now been delayed indefinitely. What do these developments tell us about the political situation within the Kurdish region and why are these developments significant?

If at the same time as these elections, a referendum also had taken place for the new draft constitution -- and if the people of Kurdistan had approved the new constitution -- then more powers would have gone to the Kurdish president. So much so that the parliament would have been significantly weakened. And this would have been a very dangerous development. We definitely see a trend toward centralization of power in the Kurdistan region. We can only hope that through these elections and the emergence of an opposition, that trend can be halted.

RFE/RL: Why do you see moves toward centralization of authority in the Kurdish region as a dangerous development?

There clearly is a double standard at play here because if the Kurds, on the one hand, call for a high degree of decentralization [across] Iraq, but then at home are centralizing -- if I were an Arab Iraqi I would say, "Well, what are you doing? What are you calling for here when you are not applying it at home?" It builds in a contradiction. And I think it will diminish the legitimacy of the Kurdish claim for decentralization in the rest of Iraq.

But it is emblematic of the policies of the KDP in particular, and Masud Barzani as president, that it tends toward greater centralization. It has always been a fairly centralized party. Now that the PUK is weakened by divisions, this trend has been reinforced. But it is also something that the opposition opposes. And now that the referendum has been postponed, maybe the opposition will have a chance to call for a revision of the constitution before it is placed before the electorate for a referendum.

RFE/RL: What do anticipate will happen with the presidential election in the autonomous Kurdish region?

The current president, Masud Barzani, is the only real candidate [for the presidency of the Kurdish region]. There are five other candidates who have much less a standing and much smaller chances of winning.

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