SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq (AFP) – Opposition candidates are railing against corruption and raising the reformist flag in a bid to break the stranglehold on power by two main political parties in Iraq’s Kurdish region.
Their demands for change have sparked a real debate over the future of Iraqi Kurdistan ahead of voting in regional presidential and legislative elections on Saturday.
The polls are not likely to pack any surprises — regional president Massud Barzani is expected to be re-elected to his post, and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) will probably take the lion’s share of the legislative seats.
But some smaller groupings are garnering attention, such as the “Goran” (“Change”) list, which held one of its biggest rallies on Wednesday night, drawing 6,000 supporters in Sulaimaniyah, the region’s second-biggest city.
They waved the list’s flag — blue with a candle in the middle — and shouted their demands for reforms in scenes marking the equivalent of a mini cultural revolution in the oil-rich northern Iraq region.
Nusherwan Mustafa, a wealthy entrepreneur and a former PUK deputy leader, is heading the list and, along with several other defectors from his former party, hopes to upset the region’s political consensus.
“We will win a majority that will allow us to form a government,” the parliamentary candidate enthusiastically told AFP. “And if we lose, we will still be winners because we would have changed the way politics are conducted in the region.”
His list is counting on protest votes against the two main parties, mostly from young Kurds who have grown up in a stable Kurdistan and who are more well-off and Westernised than their parents.
The Kurdish region, which benefited from the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait in the form of US military protection, has since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq enjoyed better security than the rest of the country.
“We think that Kurdish society, after a political stabilisation, now needs economic, social and cultural reforms,” Mustafa said. “The leadership (of the PUK) does not want to change and that is why we are going before the voters.”
He added: “We are a political force with real popular support. We did not buy the people’s loyalty by distributing money.”
One of the list’s main thrusts has been to denounce corruption, which has emerged as a central issue during campaigning.
“I don’t care who wins,” said 53-year-old Hakim Ammar, a resident of the Kurdish capital Arbil.
“All I care about is that the winners do away with favouritism and corruption in government institutions.”
Farouq Majid, another Arbil resident, was less critical but far from satisfied.
“We cannot say that the government or the two main parties have done nothing, but they must do more for the people,” said Majid.
“The government (is operating in) a stable environment, we are a province rich in petrol. We should have access to services such as those available in the Gulf.”
Seemingly recognising a rising level of disaffection amongst voters, the PUK and KDP’s joint “Kurdistania” list is comprised mainly of new candidates promising they will push reforms.
And the government itself, led by regional Prime Minister Neshirvan Barzani, the president’s nephew, has pushed a transparency drive, hiring international consultants PricewaterhouseCoopers to improve governance.
Though it is impossible to predict how the “Goran” list will do in Saturday’s election due to the lack of independent polling, it has firmly established itself as a protest to the Kurdish political status quo.
“We can’t predict whether the other parties will make a significant challenge to PUK and the KDP,” a Western diplomat told AFP.
“It’s not going to change the face of Kurdistan’s regional politics overnight, but it may be a wake-up call to the joint list that they can be replaced.”