ARBIL, Iraq, (Reuters) – Iraqi Kurds voted on Saturday in elections expected to keep President Masoud Barzani in power in Kurdistan and unlikely to allay voters’ resentment of corruption or end a feud with Baghdad over land and oil.
Polls close at 1500 GMT in the largely autonomous region and ballots will be flown to Baghdad. The official tally is expected to take at least 2-3 days if there are no challenges.
The people of the relatively peaceful northern enclave will elect a president directly this time, unlike in 2005 polls that elected only a parliament. Former guerrilla leader Barzani looks certain to defeat his five competitors.
Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Democratic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the region’s powerful ruling parties, are running for seats on a joint list against 23 alliances of smaller parties.
Barzani and other Kurdish leaders have churned out fiery rhetoric in recent weeks about claims to territories they contest with Baghdad’s Arab-led government.
Diplomats see the row over oil-producing Kirkuk and other disputed areas as a major threat to Iraq’s long-term stability as sectarian violence fades, but many Kurds support Barzani’s hardline approach against Baghdad, from where Saddam Hussein launched deadly attacks against Kurds in the 1980s. “I am hoping for a more effective parliament,” said Mohammed Salar, 60, a government worker in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya, “and a return of our ransacked land”.
The Kurd-Arab row has held up critical energy laws in the national parliament and complicates government efforts to secure investment in the oil sector, the anchor of Iraq’s economy.
Barzani, wearing a red turban and traditional Kurdish baggy trousers, held up his purple-stained finger after voting in Salahuddin, where he lives in a mountaintop enclave near the capital Arbil. He renewed his defence of a plan laid out in Iraq’s 2005 constitution for settling control of Kirkuk, even though Arab politicians and the United Nations have backed away from it. “I will never compromise on Kirkuk,” he said.
Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, the president’s nephew, signalled that Kurdish leaders might be able to take a different tack once elections were behind them.
“We hope after the election we will be able to sit down at the negotiating table with Baghdad and resolve the issue of Kirkuk … We as Kurds are willing to show flexibility.”
Although Kurds have long dreamed of their own state and such rallying cries used to define Kurdish politics, many now worry more about problems closer to home, like graft.
Critics of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) accuse it of widespread official corruption, abuses by security forces, media intimidation and an atmosphere that stifles dissent.
An alliance hoping to capitalise on disenchantment is the Change list, run by independent candidate Noshwan Mustafa.
“(Politicians) just put money in their own pockets. We need new people in power,” said Hameed Abu-Bakr, 24, a Change supporter in Arbil, the heartland of Barzani support.
While the polls are not expected to topple the region’s two-party hegemony, Change officials hope for up to a third of the 111 seats in the Kurdish parliament. “We are seeking to win the elections but, no matter what, we will consider ourselves winners because for the first time there has been fierce competition,” Mustafa told Reuters TV.
Mustafa’s party complained of scattered voting problems but electoral officials were not immediately available to respond.
The KDP-PUK alliance is emphasising accountability and notes that Kurds are proud of their relatively prosperous enclave, which has flourished while the rest of Iraq descended into bloody chaos and insurgency after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
“Under Saddam, we had nothing. Thanks to Barzani, now we have growth and democracy. We owe it all to him,” said Arbil voter Herman Amil.