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“I must ask you to leave because you are criticising the authorities on state property,” said a Kurdish official, interrupting our conversation with a critic of the Kurdish government.
We were speaking to Peshko Hama Fares Mohammed, a representative of Goran or Change, a new political party which is seeking to dislodge the rulers of Kurdistan for the last 18 years in a hard fought general election taking place today. We had met outside the town of Halabja in eastern Kurdistan at a monument whose blue and white tower commemorates the 5,000 Kurds killed in a poison gas attack by Saddam Hussein’s air force in 1988.
To escape the summer heat we retreated to a café at the back of the monument where Mr Mahmoud explained why so many Kurds are angry at the way in which the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) monopolize power, money and jobs. At this point the official in charge of the monument, who had been openly eavesdropping, broke in to say that he could not allow anything bad about the government to be said in a building for which he was responsible. “I might be sacked from my job if anybody found out what you were saying,” he explained apologetically as he evicted us.
Eastern Kurdistan is ablaze with Goran’s blue flags and posters, as the movement openly tries to emulate the ‘Orange revolutions’ of Georgia and Ukraine, where reformers used general elections to depose long-entrenched elites. Goran wanted to make the flame of the candle, which is the party’s symbol, orange only to find that another party had already established its right to the color.
Nobody expects the long-established Kurdish leaders, Jalal Talabani, president of Iraq and head of the PUK, and Masoud Barzani, president of the highly autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government and head of the KDP, to lose power. They are the men who fought Saddam Hussein and brought their people quasi independence. But their previously unchallenged rule is now being questioned in a way that some Kurds compare to recent protests in Iran.
“Kurdistan is run like an ex-Soviet republic,” claimed Nawshirwan Mustafa, the leader of Goran, in an interview with meearlier this year. “There is no division between party and government, no independent judiciary, no open or fair distribution of national wealth, or real democracy.”
Government leaders say this is a bit rich coming from Mr Mustafa, since he was until recently the deputy head of the PUK, and part of the very elite he now denounces for corruption and autocracy. This may have some truth in it, but the PUK heartlands in Sulaimaniyah province are full of indications that many people agree with Goran’s assault on the establishment. At a rally in one district of Sulaimaniyah its supporters danced and applauded a Kurdish rapper whose refrain was: “Nobody is unhappy now in Kurdistan.” Dara Jabar, who works in a factory in the UK and had returned to vote, said: “The parties take all the oil money for themselves and nobody knows where it goes.” Asos Hama, an enthusiastic Goran supporter, said: “People are very fed up because this is a very rich country, but people who have been to university have to work as taxi drivers for 10 or 12 years. Three or four people live in one room.”
Mohammed Tawfiq, a former senior official of PUK and now a spokesman for Goran, broadens out the criticism. He says that people are angry about lack of services such as electricity and water, but adds that the Kurdish political leadership has got everything else wrong since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, from failing to successfully establish the Kurdish claim to Kirkuk to keeping secret the terms on which contracts are awarded for exploiting Kurdish oil.
President Talabani and President Barzani have been fighting back hard, holding their own meetings and demonstrations. Walls are covered with their emblem of a galloping horse on a green and white background. If Goran does make a breakthrough it will be in OUK territory.
Elections in Iraq are also about more than popularity. Patronage is crucial to success at the polls and the government controls most jobs in an economy dominated by the state. Some 65 per cent of the state budget goes on civil and military salaries. A main complaint of Goran is that the KDP and PUK members form a mafia that monopolizes the distribution of jobs, contracts and subsidies.
The Kurdish political establishment, as leaders of one of the most successful national liberation movements in the world, appears taken back by the seeming ingratitude of their own people. They also feel that this is no time to show disunity when they are not far from armed conflict with Baghdad. But the run-up to tomorrow’s election shows that patriotic enthusiasm is no longer enough to unite the Kurds.
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‘.