Changing Kurdistan

Changing Kurdistan

On July 25 Kurdistan held both presidential and parliamentary elections. A new, stronger opposition with more seats in the parliament indicates a change in the political landscape in the region.


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.

The election process was by no means devoid of problems. Opposition parties loudly complained of widespread irregularities and fraud. But the degree of irregularity varied depending on the region. International observers who talked to The Nation say the balloting in Sulaimaniya, which witnessed fierce competition among various groups, was “free and fair.” One observer with a European monitoring group, who did not want to be identified because the group has not officially released its election report, said her group had received many complaints, especially in smaller townships in Irbil and Dohuk provinces, the strongholds of the KDP. Although the opposition groups have refused so far to accept the results, there appears to be some consensus among monitors and observers that the irregularities were not big enough to change the overall results.

The conduct of Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission has also been criticized for failing to ensure transparency throughout the process. “Given the history of voting irregularities in this part of the country, I would have hoped there would be a presence of international observers every step of the vote, just as a guarantee,” international observer Erik Gustafson said in a phone interview from Irbil. Gustafson says the IHEC did not allow his team to accompany ballot boxes to their final destination, where they were counted. Opposition parties have also complained of attacks on their offices and candidates by mobs that they suspect are close to the ruling coalition.

Even amid these accusations, most speculation now is on what the new Parliament will be like. Opposition groups have vowed to fight endemic corruption both in the Kurdish government and the political parties, to push for more transparency and to make officials more accountable. In the past, Kurdish parliamentarians had been widely criticized for failing in all these tasks. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has mostly kept Kurdish lawmakers and the Iraqi government in the dark about such crucial matters as its budget and the oil deals it has signed with foreign firms.

As change has become the buzz on the Kurdish street, many in Baghdad and Washington wonder whether there will be a change in the KRG’s stance regarding Kurdish relations with the rest of Iraq. But the opposition’s mandate for change could be mostly reserved for domestic issues.

“I don’t see any significant difference [between the opposition and the ruling coalition] on issues that concern Kurdistan’s relations with Baghdad,” says Najmaldin Karim, head of the Washington Kurdish Institute, an organization dedicated to the promotion of Kurdish interests in the United States. “In fact, the Change List has criticized the Kurdistani List for not being tough enough on issues such as Article 140. I don’t see any softening when it comes to these issues.”

Article 140 refers to a provision in Iraq’s Constitution devising a road map to settle the thorny issue of the “disputed territories,” which include oil-rich Kirkuk province. The article stipulated that a census and a referendum were to be held in Kirkuk by the end of 2007, in which the local population would decide whether it wanted to be part of the Kurdistan region or administered by the central government in Baghdad. The referendum was delayed, but Kurds still insist it must be held. (Tens of thousands of Kurds and Turkomans were forcibly expelled from the disputed territories under former President Saddam Hussein. Many ethnic Kurds have returned since Saddam’s overthrow, so non-Kurds fear that the referendum will automatically make Kirkuk part of the Kurdistan region.)

There may have been serious domestic disputes in this election campaign, but on the issue of Kurdish relations with the rest of Iraq, it is risky for any side to appear less nationalistic than the others. Even if the opposition intended to have a different policy, it could hardly do anything about it, since the executive branch, headed by incumbent Massoud Barzani, is in charge of directing policy vis-à-vis Baghdad. During his election campaign Barzani vowed not to make any compromises on Kurdish demands.

However, some say the Kurds’ tough talk during the campaign may not necessarily translate into policy. Tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds have risen to alarming levels over the past year; both sides now seem to be trying to defuse the situation. This past weekend Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki held talks with Barzani and Talabani. The fact that they even held a meeting is significant, since the two sides have not met for close to a year.

Even so, it is unlikely overall Kurdish policy will change that much. “I would think the line will be the same, but the rhetoric will be toned down and some modus vivendi with Baghdad will be sought,” J. Scott Carpenter, an expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Nation. He says Kurdish leaders should “refrain from pressing on issues that will cause a backlash in Baghdad.”

With the United States eager to stabilize Iraqi politics and thus allow a timely withdrawal of American troops, the question is whether the outcome of these elections will further complicate the situation or help resolve the problems between Kurds and the rest of the country. Washington seems to want to bring the two sides closer together. When Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled to Irbil the week after the elections, he reconfirmed the US commitment to help resolve problems between ethnic Kurds and Arabs. But an agreement is still very much in doubt. Unpredictability has always been the main feature of Iraq’s politics.

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