Kurdistan Election Decided

Kurdish voters presented a united front for Baghdad. But internal divisions are rife—and the region might soon devolve into political turmoil.

Iraq's elections are still too early, and too close, to call, but here in Kurdistan enough is clear that one party is exultant and another distressed. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani appears to have bounced back from the brink of political extinction following the rough beating it received from a group of former party cadres in Kurdistan's regional parliamentary elections last July. Calling in particular for an end to corruption, these former party officials coalesced into a reform movement called Goran, or "change," which walked away with 25 percent of the vote in those polls.

For now, however, the PUK can heave a sigh of relief as early returns show that the party held its own against Goran. The PUK ran in alliance with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of regional President Masoud Barzani, while Goran ran alone. In Sulaimaniya governorate, the heartland of both the PUK and Goran (and where Goran trounced the PUK in July) the PUK appears to have won everywhere except in the city of Sulaimaniya itself. In the town of Koya, where Talabani was born, the PUK squeaked out a victory after its humiliating defeat there seven months ago. And Goran activists acknowledge that the PUK far outpaced them in the important governorate of Kirkuk.

Observers attributed Goran's relatively poor showing to a number of factors. The main one may be that Kurdish voters like the idea of reform, and trust Goran deputies, who have stood up in the regional parliament and challenged the ruling parties with a zeal previously unknown in Kurdistan, to produce it. But that's inside the Kurdistan region. In the federal parliament in Baghdad, they prefer their representatives to present a unified nationalist Kurdish front unspoiled by unruly Goran politicians seeking to distinguish themselves from their rivals and possibly even-gasp!-making separate deals with Arab parties on issues of Kurdish national interest.

Goran will therefore have to go back to the drawing board and start building a popular movement that reaches beyond its narrow base in the Suleimaniya urban professional class. Its next challenge will be provincial elections in the Kurdistan region at the end of October.

As for the PUK, it dodged a bullet. Long an equal to the KDP, the PUK has seen its influence wane over the past couple of years owing to internal dissension and a looming crisis over who will eventually succeed Talabani. Ever since an internecine conflict in the 1990s, its relationship with the KDP has been defined by a secret strategic agreement that provides for an equitable sharing of power and wealth. As the PUK began to falter, however, some in the KDP began to question this agreement's utility and had spoken of cutting their partner loose. Such a move could have serious consequences for the region's stability, which is far from assured. For now, the strategic agreement holds, but the succession crisis remains and Goran is waiting for the next opportunity to strike again.


Joost R. Hiltermann is deputy program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group.