SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq (AFP) – A new dissident party in Iraqi Kurdistan said Sunday it won most votes in the region’s second city in weekend elections, raising the prospect of a strong opposition in parliament for the first time.
The success of the Goran (Change) list in Sulaimaniyah threatens the long domination of Iraqi Kurdish politics by the two main former rebel factions — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of regional president Massud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
The party said in a statement on its website that it had won the most votes in Sulaimaniyah, long a PUK stronghold, after a preliminary count, a claim confirmed by a senior KDP source who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“We have won the city and the province of Sulaimaniyah,” the Goran statement said.
The KDP source said the KDP-PUK list won 59 percent of votes across the region, equating to around 55 seats in the regional assembly.
In the autonomous Kurdish region’s other two provinces of Arbil and Dohuk, party representatives at the count said the KDP-PUK joint list was ahead, although Goran was coming second in Arbil province.
After the preliminary count in the regional capital Arbil, ballots are to be sent to Baghdad for an official tally and full results are not expected for several days.
Victory for Goran in Sulaimaniyah province would mean the list could secure as many as 30 seats in Kurdistan’s 111-seat parliament, making it the first credible opposition to KDP-PUK dominance that the region has seen.
The KDP-PUK joint list held 78 seats in the outgoing parliament elected in 2005.
Goran is led by Nusherwan Mustafa, a wealthy entrepreneur and former deputy leader of the PUK.
Nearly 80 percent of the region’s voters turned out in what election officials trumpeted as a transparent poll.
No opinion polls were carried out in the run-up to Saturday’s election, which had made the outcome difficult to predict.
Seats in the regional parliament are awarded by a form of proportional representation.
Kurds exhibited increasing concern over corruption through the course of the campaign, with many voicing support for change after decades of dominance by the two main parties.
Also looming over the election were disputes with Baghdad over territory and oil, which diplomats and analysts have warned could lead to renewed conflict.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki described the election as “another step in building a democratic Iraq” and and “an opportunity to resolve all problems”.
Barzani told reporters: “We hope that these elections will be a first step to solving issues with Baghdad.”
But he also insisted: “I will work to get back the disputed areas.”
He was referring to longstanding Kurdish demands to incorporate the oil province of Kirkuk and historically Kurdish-majority parts of three other provinces into their autonomous region.
The Kurdish claims are strongly opposed by Arab and other non-Kurdish populations of the disputed areas and have led to mounting friction with Baghdad.
On June 1, the Kurdish region began exporting oil for the first time, triggering another row with Baghdad, which disputes its right to sign contracts without central government approval.
In Washington on Thursday, Maliki acknowledged that the disputes with the Kurds were among “the most dangerous issues” facing his government, but said he expects to resolve the standoff.