Big turnout expected in hotly contested Iraqi Kurdistan vote

Special elections that began Thursday morning in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region are considered the hottest since the first Kurdish parliamentary elections in 1992.

The elections are significant for all of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan comprises three of Iraq’s 18 provinces and contains about one-fifth of Iraq’s population.

The outcome of the elections could affect efforts to resolve ethnic strife in disputed areas of northern Iraq bordering the Kurdish region, and ongoing conflicts over control of oil and its revenues.

Two main Kurdish parties have been the dominant political forces in the region for decades. These are Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barazani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

This time, voters are choosing from more than 500 candidates from 24 slates for the111-seat regional Parliament. Dissatisfaction over corruption and political nepotism are a factor in the ferment.

In the first Kurdish election in 1992, only seven slates ran. In the second election, in 2005, there were 13 slates. Both times the PUK and KDP ran together, as they are doing now. In 2005, their alliance won 104 of the 111 legislative seats.

This time the PUK-KDP alliance is facing a strong challenge from PUK co-founder Nishurwan Mustafa who is running on his own Change List. Mustafa owns a powerful media company, Wisha, that he has used to promote his campaign. Most of the list is made up of former PUK officials. Some suggest that Mustafa could win 20 percent of the vote.

Another first is the formation of a left electoral slate, the Freedom and Social Justice list, which is composed of five left parties including the Kurdistan Communist Party.

The Kurdistan Communist Party has two seats in the Iraqi Parliament, and works closely with the Iraqi Communist Party, which also has two seats in Parliament.

In the past the Kurdish CP has participated in the Kurdish alliance led by the PUK and KDP.

Dr. Hadi Mahmoud, spokesman for the Freedom and Social Justice list and a member of the Kurdistan Communist Party, told the Kurdish Globe that the left parties had formed their electoral alliance in order to “find a way into the decision-making medium and effectively act there,” and because they “want to be able to create street/public activity — a form of left struggle that is democratic, civil, and peaceful.”

He made it clear that his list does not want to topple the ruling KDP-PUK alliance, but rather to ensure wider participation and transparency, especially in the economic field.

The left parties’ program, he said, emphasizes “social reforms, including developing society, expanding democracy's dimensions, expanding secularism, and spreading civil ideas in both political and social lives.”

“Leftists are not content with the economic policy of the Kurdish Regional Government and Iraq, which all are built dependent on the rationality of neo-liberalism,” Mahmoud said. “It was neo-liberalism that caused the economic crises for the capitalist system in the United States.” The left right now cannot call for establishing a socialist system — it is impossible to establish now, he said. But the left wants the existing capitalist system to “allow people a role.”

“We require the economic policy to be clear and progressive,” he said. “A healthy system cannot be achieved via slogans. The government should control the market and the region's investment law must be amended.”

Currently, he said, “all the doors are open for foreign investment while the law does not help native capitalists. Privileges given to a foreign investor are not allowed to a national investor. The foreign investors who come are exempted from taxes. Some contracts lack transparency. Development must be carried out in the social interest. Investment now, however, is the neo-liberal style that opens all the doors for investment without any control. This policy must be redirected.”

Also running is a list is made up several Islamic parties, one of them connected with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Five parliamentary seats have been reserved for the region’s Turkmen minority, another five seats for Chaldeans/Assyrians, and two seats for Armenians. Several slates are vying separately for these seats.

Kurdish voters are also electing the regional president. Incumbent President Barzani is expected to win handily over four competitors.

Officials and political analysts expect a high turnout. Balloting will be completed July 25.

A referendum on a controversial new regional constitution has been postponed until later this summer or early fall.

suewebb @ pww.org