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August 4, 2009 The significance of the elections in Iraqi Kurdistan

The Institute for National Security Studies - By Appel, Michael 

The result of the July 25 regional parliamentary and presidential elections in the Kurdish autonomous region is a significant landmark in the history of the Kurds and Kurdistan. The coalition's Kurdistani List, composed of the two ruling parties in the autonomous region (the Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Masoud Barzani, president of the region, and Nechirvan Barzani, his prime minister; and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani, president of Iraq), suffered a serious blow but retained a majority in the regional parliament. Although not final, the Kurdistani List appears to have won roughly 60 seats in the regional parliament. Until the elections, it held an absolute majority with 89 of the seats. Barham Salih, deputy prime minister of Iraq and Talabani's close associate, headed the Kurdistani List, and he may well be Kurdistan's next prime minister. 

The opposition, chiefly the Change List (Gorran), led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, seems to have made impressive strides and won 25-27 seats in parliament. In the large city of Sulaimaniyah and in East Kurdistan, the traditional stronghold of the PUK, the Change List won the majority of the popular vote, as likewise in the northwest, the traditional stronghold of the KDP. This is a remarkable achievement, particularly in light of the pressures – and sometimes threats – exerted by Kurdistani List activists and Kurdish administration and security personnel, ruled by the two parties. The leaders of the two parties are still benefiting from the aura surrounding those who led the Kurdish national struggle against Saddam and who are credited with the Kurds' subsequent political achievements. Moreover, the Kurdistani region bureaucracy, its educational system, and its security apparatus, controlled by the two parties comprising the Kurdistani List, are Kurdistan's largest employer. 

The third list, winning 14 seats, is the coalition of the two Muslim parties and the two small left wing parties, which ran under as the Service and Reform List. In the 2005 elections, the Muslim parties, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) and the Islamic Group in Kurdistan, managed to seat 11 representatives in the Kurdistani parliament and 5 representatives in the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad. 

The recent elections are an historical landmark and reflect not only a change in the political circumstances but also deep transformations in Kurdistani society. The relative success of the opposition reflects both the attempt to root out the corruption, nepotism, and inefficiency that have plagued the two main parties and also the deep transformations taking place in Kurdish society since the 1990s: urbanization, dramatic expansion of educational levels, expansion of a modern middle class, and the rise of a civil society with urban bourgeois values. 

The Kurdistani parliament has 111 seats. There are a total of 11 seats reserved for the Turkmeni, Christian, and Armenian minorities. Close to 80 percent of the electorate participated in the voting. 

In the region's presidential elections, four candidates ran against the incumbent, Masoud Barzani. The most prominent among them were Kamal Mirawadali, an intellectual in exile and a harsh critic of the ruling parties and their leadership and Ibrahim Hilo, a cousin of the Iraqi president and a candidate with no chance of winning; and the leader of the PUK, Jalal Talabani. According to his supporters, Hilo was expelled from the PUK after having exposed corruption and bribery schemes involving oil and foreign oil companies and central party members. As expected, Barzani, who enjoys a great deal of prestige, both as a national leader in his own right and as the son and heir to Mullah Mustafa Barzani, won a majority of the votes. However, the success of Mirawadali in attracting many votes is an expression of the transformations occurring among the Kurds and destabilization of the monopoly of the Kurdistani National Movement and the Democratic Party's historic leadership. 

Nawshirwan Mustafa (born in 1944), intellectual, historian, and author of more than 20 books, is the big winner in the parliamentary elections. He was one of the founders of the PUK and Jalal Talabani's deputy in leading the party. In December 2006, he resigned as deputy secretary-general of the PUK because of a heated disagreement with the party's establishment, which ended his attempts to introduce significant reforms into the party and the regional government, uproot corruption and nepotism, return to the struggle for social justice, and adopt policies designed to restore the trust of the younger generation of Kurds in the party. Before the elections, he established the Change List, whose platform consisted of uprooting corruption, separating the parties from administration and security services, providing responses to economic and social ills – especially unemployment among the young and among the intellectuals – and battling the inefficiency of the regional administration. A series of programmatic articles reveal that Mustafa understands that the frustration, alienation, and despair among the younger generation in the face of the corruption endemic in Kurdish administration institutions, and that the lack of a vision for Kurdistan's society and economy threaten the very core of the project to build a strong national autonomous region and a Kurdistani nation. Mustafa enjoys the prestige as one of the founding fathers of the PUK, and unlike other activists and leaders, has maintained his integrity and avoided corruption. His prestige as a commander of the Kurdish peshmerga and as an important strategist during the struggle against the various regimes in Baghdad helped him win widespread support. 

The Talabani-led PUK was hit hardest. The Kurdistan Democratic Party, more conservative and having more tribal characteristics, maintained, relatively speaking, its veteran core. However, even in the regions where there was traditional support for the Democratic Party, the Change List and other parties made headway. 

The leaders and activists of the two ruling Kurdistani parties, which grew and gained strength during the decades-long bloody revolts and national struggle against the various regimes in Baghdad and that have run the Kurdistani autonomous region since its inception in 1991-92, grew corrupt and found it hard to cope with the challenges of constructing a modern economy and society in the Kurdistani autonomous region. 

With the growth of a bourgeois civil society and a new intellectual, urban generation, and in light of the growth of the opposition and the increasingly harsh public criticism, the leaders and activists of the two parties, who in recent years had been busy fighting among themselves, rallied together and overcame, at least partially, the remains of their difficult past. Dialectically, the rivals of yesterday, who came to resemble one another more and more as their organizations became part of the establishment, became strategic allies to face the challenge of the new political and social forces. 

The test of the Kurds will be their ability to maintain a complex pluralistic democratic political system without diluting their strength vis-à-vis other forces in Iraq and the Middle East. The growth of a civil society and a bourgeois middle class and the strengthening of the discourse and values of individualism are taking place in Kurdistani society at the same time that the national struggle, requiring the backing of the nation as a whole, is not yet complete. 

The success of Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq's Shiite prime minister and his centralizing policies, are arousing Kurdistani fears that these are intended to narrow Kurdistani autonomy. In recent months, tensions have risen between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurds about serious disputed issues, such as the future of oil-rich Kirkuk and regions with high Kurdistani populations in the Ninveh, Diala, and Sallah al-Din provinces whose annexation the Kurds have been demanding. In some cases, the disputes have come close to violent clashes between Kurdistani forces, which in practice control these areas, and Iraqi army forces sent to impose the will of the Iraqi government there. In some cases, only the intervention of American forces prevented violent confrontations. 

Whatever happens as a result of the elections will be the big test of the Kurds – can they sustain a non-violent democratic political system and accept the voters' decision – and will determine if democratic politics will slowly replace the violent protectionist tribalism that has characterized Kurdistani politics to date. Another question is how the Kurdish region and the Kurdistani national movement in Iraq will line up in light of complex coalition arrangements. Will the Iraqi parliamentary elections, scheduled to take place early in 2010, include Kurds running as a united front alongside a small Kurdistani Islamic party as in 2005, or will the Kurdistani camp be split? Only time will tell. 

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