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The surprisingly strong showing by a reformist party in Kurdistan elections is shaking the power structure in what has long been the most stable part of Iraq.
The "Goran" party – which translates as "change" – did particularly well here in Sulaimaniyah, in eastern Kurdistan. This region has long been the stronghold of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani. The electoral setback to his party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is reported to be so severe he is considering resignation, according to al-Sharqiya, a television news channel.
The outcome of the election is being closely monitored by the Baghdad government for signs the normally well-organized and united Kurdish bloc is beginning to split.
This would be important given growing hostility between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) which is threatening to lead to armed conflict between Arabs and Kurds over disputed territories, including Kirkuk and its oilfields.
Based on incomplete results yesterday evening, Goran appeared to have won some half of the vote in Sulaimaniyah. "It is too close to call," said Qubad Talabani, son of the president, speaking for the Kurdistan List – which unites the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
The defection of so many of its supporters to Goran, which was only formed recently, is a blow to the PUK in its stronghold. "Goran’s success has changed the way politics is done in Iraqi Kurdistan," said Hiwa Osman, country director for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, and former press secretary to President Talabani.
Goran leaders said yesterday they suspected their gains in the KDP-dominated Arbil and Dohuk provinces had been limited by electoral fraud, in the final hours of the poll.
Mohammed Tawfiq, a former PUK leader who joined Goran, said: "All was going well until about 3.30pm when there was a surprising surge in the number of voters in the space of a few hours. There was definitely something fishy going on."
If suspicion by Goran supporters that the vote was rigged hardens into a conviction they have been robbed of complete victory, then animosity will deepen between the parties. Last night however there were no signs of any move to organized street protests.
Goran was founded by Nawshirwan Mustafa, a former deputy leader of the PUK. He accused his former allies of ruling Kurdistan autocratically, as if it was a former Soviet republic like Turkmenistan. As well as his former party, he was critical of the KDP, led by Massoud Barzani, who is also president of the KRG.
Mr Mustafa said the ruling parties had total control of parliament, the judiciary, intelligence agencies, the media, peshmerga militia, and Kurdistan’s 17 per share of Iraq’s oil revenues.
Most people, he said, survive "on government salaries". He said there is "no economy, no industry and no agriculture". Mr Mustafa also alleged that the Kurdish leaders were exaggerating the threat of war with Baghdad to frighten Kurds into offering their support. "It is a fabrication to mobilize public opinion," he said.
Mr Mustafa described the KDP as the "family party" of Mr Barzani, who was re-elected president of the KRG.
But in Sulaimaniyah, he was outvoted by an obscure candidate, Kamal Mirawdeli, in what will be seen by the KDP as a serious rebuff, and a sign its PUK partner has been weakened. Speaking in the run-up to the election, Mr Barzani reiterated his determination to see Kurds make good their claims to disputed areas which stretch 300 miles across northern Iraq, from Syria to Iran.
He openly attacked Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki for monopolizing power, such as controlling the oil industry, and unilaterally appointing 15 army divisional commanders.
Goran leaders have criticized Mr Barzani’s confrontational approach in trying to make Kirkuk and other disputed areas part of the KRG.
"You can’t integrate them by force," said Mr Tawfiq, adding that non-Kurdish minorities need to be encouraged to offer their support by better services, and greater respect for their rights.
Goran’s platform of combating corruption and party control of power, money and jobs, resonated with many Kurds. The campaign came alive with mass rallies under the blue Goran flag, in a way which has never happened previously in Kurdistan. These prompted the Kurdistan Front to respond with its own mass rallies.
Such activism is uncommon in much of the rest of the Middle East, where elections are often a means for the state to demonstrate its own control.
Every suitable flat surface in Iraqi Kurdistan has been covered in election posters and banners, some so vast that they have been shredded by the desert wind. In this part of the country most of the flags are dark blue, the colour of Goran.
It has been a surprising campaign. Goran leaders appear a little bemused by the surge in vociferous support for them and the extent of the openly expressed dissatisfaction with the powers that be. This hunger for reform is very evident in Sulaimaniyah, the most heavily populated province in Kurdistan. Driving in the high hills close to the Iranian border, I saw a young man riding a bicycle made unwieldy by two blue flags tied to the handlebars. At a nearby picnic spot in a grove of trees a family had spread a blanket on the ground from which to eat as a Goran flag waved over their heads.
Such political engagement has never been seen in Kurdistan before. Through gritted teethm the two ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), said they welcome effective opposition as a sign of democratic progress. For its part, Goran has hinted at emulating Georgia or Ukraine by carrying out its own ‘orange revolution’ against the establishment. This is made uo of former insurgents entrenched in power ever since they successfully led the Kurdish national liberation struggle against Saddam Hussein. The poll could show that appeals to Kurdish nationalism no longer trump a deep-set and growing feeling of resentment against the new Kurdish ruling class.
Denunciations of the PUK and KDP, standing together as the Kurdistan List, and expressions of support for Goranm, grew in volume over the past few months. Driving along a road which leads to a mountain overlooking Sulaimaniyah last week, I suddenly saw a party just off the road where many people were dancing and celebrating in front of a large yellow excavator draped in blue flags. On a small stage a Kurdish band was playing and people were dancing to the music, holding hands as they formed concentric circles which contracted and expanded as they danced.
“Everything must change after 18 years,” said Dara Jabar, who works in a factory in a factory in Nottingham but had come back to vote, and was attending the celebration. “They must give the money they stole for themselves and their political parties back to the people.”
The parties in question are the PUK, founded and led by the President of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, and the KDP, led by the President of the quasi-independent Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani. Both men are politicians of great skill and experience, but for many Kurds their past achievements and current efforts to avert the current threat to the Kurds from a resurgent Iraqi government, is no longer enough to justify their autocratic, secretive and corrupt rule.
In many respects Mr Talabani and Barzani are victims of their own success in bringing peace to Kurdistan in the decade since they fought a bloody civil war in the 1990s. Younger Kurds no longer feel the same sense of imminent danger as their fathers, A young woman at the street party in Sulaimaniyah called Asos Hama said crisply: “Barzani and Talabani keep all the oil wealth for themselves. People with university degrees drive taxis and people live three or four to a room. Of course we want change.”
Goran has grown swiftly after a split in the PUK that has ruled eastern Kurdistan since Saddam Hussein withdrew his troops in 1991. Its leader is the former PUK deputy leader, Nowshirwan Mustafa, who earlier this year told me that he thought Kurdistan was run along the same dictatorial lines of an ex-Soviet republic and is, in effect, a one party state in control of every aspect of life.
Events in Kurdustan are taking a similar path to that of many countries where the leaders of national liberation or revolutions become comfortably established in power and used to monopolizing its perquisites. But this development is all the more serious in Kurdistan, indeed in Iraq as a whole, because their governments wholly depend on their oil revenues.
The government receives this money, 17 per cent of Iraq’s oil revenues, from Baghdad. There is no real Kurdish economy. The country produces almost nothing, with even bottled water in Sulaymaniyah coming from Iran or Turkey. All good jobs are with the government, spending 65 per cent of its budget on salaries, and operates a gigantic patronage machine through the KDP and PUK. Standing outside one polling booth in the poorly off Khabad areas of Sulaimaniyah were groups of men who all said they had voted for Goran. “What is your main demand?” I asked .“We are asking for jobs in the government,” they said.
Politics in the rest of Iraq, also wholly dependent on its oil revenue that pays for a bloated and dysfunctional state machine, work in much the same way as in Kurdistan.
There have been rumblings in recent years that all was not well in Kurdistan. In 2006 protesters in the eastern town of Halabja burned down the substantial and ornate monument on the outskirts of the town which commemorated the death of 5,000 Halabjans in 1988 in a notorious poison gas attack by Saddam Hussein’s bombers. One demonstrator explained their action, saying: “The Kurdish government exploited Halabja to draw attention to the plight of the Kurds and get donations that never reached us.”
Three years later the Halabjans are unrepentant. A local Goran representative, Peshko Hama Fares Mahmoud, told me that “it was only after we burned the monument that they started giving us new roads and a better electricity and water supply.” Even so, he pointed to the ruins of houses that had not been repaired since the devastating gas attack. He thought a good ahowing by Goran would have similarly energizing impact on the government.
In poorer areas of Suliamniyah most of the voters said they had voted for change. Dilshad Jabbar Aziz, who left Kurdistan in 1999 to drive trucks and construction machinery in Liverpool, said: “There was no work here when I left and it was not much better when I returned six years later.”
Kurdish leaders say this is unfair and that the majority do not remember how bad things were in 1991 when they took over. It is easy to see what they mean. I came to Sulaimaniyah in that year, just after it had been recaptured by the Iraqi army which was unearthing the bodies of its secret policemen who had been killed in the Kurdish uprising and buried in mass graves. The whole of Kurdistan was devastated by prolonged war and some 3,500 out of 4,000 villages had been destroyed.
Improvements were slow to come. Four years later in 1995 I visited a village called Penjwin on the border with Iran where people only avoided starvation and fed their families by defusing a particularly dangerous type of jumping Italian made mine called the Valmara, which had been laid everywhere by the Iraqi army. The mine looked like a small Dalek, and if you touched one its prongs, a small charge threw it into the air where it exploded at waist height sptaying undreds of metal balls in all directions. Villagers defused it at enormous risk to sell for a few dollars the explosives and the aluminium in which they were wrapped. Many villagers died and Penjwin’s main street was filled with people without feet or hands.
Kurdistan is far better then than now. But it is a deeply unequal society. In the capital Arbil there are newly built gated communities of luxury houses while in much of the city people complain they cannot afford rents or a new house. Speeding convoys of vehicles carrying the new elite are widely resented and many demand a larger share of the national cake. Kurdish politicians have argued that the cake is smaller, and distribution of it less corrupt, than most Kurds imagine, but their explanations found few believers.
What is happening here in Iraqi Kurdistan today may be a precedent for the rest of Iraq, where the government is far worse and where many Iraqis believe their oil money is being systematically looted to line the pockets of a semi-criminal ruling caste which replaced Saddam Hussein.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘ and ‘Muqtada! Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia revival and the struggle for Iraq‘.