When Jalal Talabani broke away from the renowned Kurdish leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani in the mid-1960s, few could have guessed how the ambitious man’s career would turn out. Back then Talabani was a young, energetic politician who accused Barzani of turning the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) into a clan-based organization that could not accommodate educated, dissenting elements like himself.
The split came at a high cost for Kurds. They were no longer united in their bloody struggle against Baghdad for their rights. In the mid-1970s Talabani established his Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), an umbrella group of leftists and nationalists within Iraqi Kurdish society. For decades to come, Talabani was locked in a vicious cycle of fighting and mistrust with the rival KDP and Barzani family.
The charismatic Talabani would get a dose of his medicine–but not until almost half a century after his split from the KDP. By all accounts, July 25–when Kurdish parliamentary and presidential elections were held–was the day of reckoning for Talabani. He lost his stronghold of Sulaimaniya to a splinter group led by his longtime deputy and PUK co-founder, Nawshirwan Mustafa.
Early results showed Mustafa’s Change List sweeping Sulaimaniya province, where it defeated a joint ticket of the KDP and PUK, the two parties that have traditionally dominated Iraqi Kurdistan’s politics.
In an ironic twist on Kurdish history, Mustafa left the PUK in 2006 for pretty much the same reasons that Talabani left the KDP forty years before. Mustafa charged that the PUK had become a corrupt, family-run enterprise controlled by Talabani. Mustafa claims his Change Movement enjoys the support of educated and reform-craving elements of the PUK and of Kurdish society at large.
Preliminary results officially announced on July 29 indicate the Change List won around 24 percent of the vote. The other major opposition group–a coalition of Islamist and leftist parties–gained 12 percent. If that rate is sustained, the two opposition groups would secure around thirty-six seats in the 111-member Parliament. The KDP-PUK’s ruling coalition, known as the Kurdistani List, won more than 57 percent of the vote, likely around fifty-seven seats. The Turkoman and Christian minorities have eleven seats reserved for them based on a quota system.
This was the third time Kurds have held parliamentary elections during their eighteen years of self-rule in northern Iraq, and the first time that direct presidential elections were held. The incumbent president, Massoud Barzani, was re-elected as president with nearly 70 percent of the vote. While his nationalistic policies resonate with many Kurds, many in Baghdad and Washington are unhappy about them.
Although the incumbent parties will remain in power for another four-year term, the strong opposition showing has shaken up the establishment in Iraqi Kurdistan. The elections have reshaped the political landscape in a region long dominated by the KDP and PUK–but this time in a largely peaceful manner.
“Obviously, if one is wildly optimistic, the fact that political change has been achieved without recourse to arms is an important step for Kurdish society,” says Jonathan Randal, a retired Washington Post foreign correspondent who covered the Kurds for decades. “The elections this time represented a change from the emotional default position among many Kurds who have traditionally tended to vote KDP and PUK,” said Randal, the author of After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters With Kurdistan.