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Iraq's Kurdish Region Gears Up For National Vote

Kurdish region President Mas'ud Barzani, who is also leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
A horse's head over a rising sun serves as the symbol of the Kurdistan Alliance, a union of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The alliance will be making its bid, alongside three other Iraqi Kurdish lists, for seats in the Iraqi parliament in the national elections set for March 7.

As campaigning heats up, people on the street are joking that the emblematic horse originally had a body, but by the time these two parties were through with it, only the head was left.

While the punch line invariably generates hearty laughter, it is a tragic allusion to the widespread perception that in the seven years since the U.S.-led war ousted the dictatorial Saddam Hussein regime, Iraqi Kurdistan's two principal parties -- which valiantly led Iraqi Kurds through decades of resistance and have dominated the Iraqi Kurdish political scene since the 1991 uprising -- have finally succumbed to the myriad problems associated with governance. These range from exuberance to do in a few years what most societies accomplish over decades to inevitable nepotism that favors on group over another and often leads to corruption.

Ordinary citizens are asking questions of the leaders of both parties. "Since 2003, both Kurdish parties have received $35 million every month from the Iraqi budget," one resident of Sulaymaniyah said recently. "Where has that money gone? There is nothing to show for it."

The rise of the Goran (Change) party, a PUK splinter group, in last summer's regional elections marked the frustration felt across the board by Iraqi Kurds. Even those who claimed that they voted for either the PUK or KDP -- out of loyalty or habit -- confessed at the time that they admired the new party's refreshing campaign.

The 23.75 percent of votes garnered by Goran ushered two fundamental changes to the Iraqi Kurdish political arena. First, it put the two stalwart parties on their toes, compelling them to improve the services they are rendering to the people. For instance, the Kurdistan parliament recently voted to decrease the salaries of ministers and increase the monthly stipends for martyrs' families. Second, the rise of a bona-fide opposition party has signaled to the Western world that the Kurdish region is on the right track toward something akin to democracy.

In a way, it may be argued that Goran is strengthening both the KDP and the PUK, as the two established parties relearn the practice of democratization.

Ablaze With Political Fervor

Since the campaigns officially began on February 12, cities across the Kurdish region have been plastered with posters and lampposts strewn with banners and bunting. For the first time, an open-list system will be in operation, meaning that Iraqis will be voting for individuals rather than political groupings.

The streets of Sulaymaniyah, the cultural capital of the Kurdish region, are ablaze with political fervor. Late into the nights, cars crowd the streets, honking or blasting political hymns, with passengers waving banners and flags to profess support for one party or another.

While internally this palpable spirit of openness and democracy has been welcomed across the board in Iraq's Kurdish region, Goran's decision to go it alone in the upcoming national elections rather than join the alliance has met harsh criticism. There are concerns among the Iraqi Kurdish cadre from all factions that competing in the national elections in fragments will weaken their heretofore powerful position in Baghdad over pending issues, such as disputed territories, the hydrocarbons law, and federalism.

Equally important is the fate of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which aims to reverse the Arabization policy employed by the Hussein government, a policy that culminated in the tragic Anfal campaign.

In fact, the implementation of Article 140 -- touted as the road map for resolving the issue of disputed territories, notably Kirkuk -- has repeatedly been delayed by the interference of external forces and other elements in Baghdad. Turkey and most Arab countries view the inclusion of Kirkuk in the Kurdish region as a precursor to independence, although Kurdish leaders have repeatedly said they are not looking to break away. The growing political and economic relationship between Turkey and the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) seems to be gradually allaying these fears.

Likewise, the hydrocarbon law has met snags, namely over who has the right to sign oil and gas contracts and what percentage of profits the government should receive. There is even a dispute over how oil revenues should be distributed. The constitution in its current form is ambiguous, saying that undeveloped fields are the responsibility of the regions, which KRG used to justify signing various contracts. Although in recent weeks some headway has been made, Barham Salih, prime minister of the KRG, has brokered a temporary truce between Baghdad and Irbil allowing the oil to flow from the Kurdish oil fields through the pipeline to Turkey.

During the last four years, senior Kurdish officials have enjoyed the unusual position of holding power in Baghdad. It may be argued that they took advantage of the Arab disunity there and maneuvered to maximize the federal nature of Iraq, enshrining it and Kurdish rights in the constitution. Yet, with Sunni participation in these elections, Kurdish leaders may no longer be the kingmakers. If the Kurds fail to present a united front in Baghdad, then a putative Sunni-Shi'a alliance could emerge that might diminish the power of the KRG and federalism in Iraq.

All of the Kurdish lists, however, have tried to allay these fears by promising to vote as a united bloc on issues of national importance for the Kurds.

One young Goran supporter enthused: "It will actually strengthen the democratic process having many Kurdish lists in Baghdad, and it will increase the level of accountability. If the Kurdistani Alliance does not keep its promises, then Gorran can use its votes in Baghdad to pressure them to fulfill these promises for the good of the Kurdish people."

These days, few seem to be recalling the proverb that "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."

Nevertheless, the inability of the Kurds to unite against external threats has always been their Achilles heel. Indeed, internal divisions may cost Kurds critical positions of power in Baghdad, the most symbolic of these being the presidency. Following a recent meeting between Goran head Nawshirwan Mustafa and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is also the secretary-general of the PUK, Goran has begun hinting that it may not back Talabani's reelection.

Tanya Goudsouzian is a Doha-based journalist specializing in Iraq and Afghanistan and Lara Fatah is a London-based specialist in Iraqi Kurdish affairs. The views expressed in this commentary are the authors' own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL