IRBIL, Iraq — The two political parties that have dominated political life in Iraq's Kurdish provinces since 1991 face their first serious challenge at the ballot box Saturday with an unexpectedly strong run from a group riding all the buzz it can carry by promising Obama-like "change."
The results could shift the often-fractious relationship between the Kurdistan Regional Government and Iraq's central government in Baghdad. Negotiations over territory and oil, however, are on the back burner on the streets of Irbil and Sulaimaniya.
Charges of pervasive corruption and a perception that members of the ruling government have enriched themselves while in office have many Kurds getting behind the simply named "Change" party.
"Oil comes out of our stomachs but still we don't have it. Those who don't support the government are starving," said Heider Haji Ziad, 42, a merchant in the open-air bazaar beneath Irbil's ancient citadel. "People are fed up with the government. Why are the people who support the government getting everything?"
Like many people in Irbil, Ziad wouldn't say what party he supports. Ten voters sampled made clear their frustrations with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party. They wouldn't say, however, if they'd break with the two groups, which fought for Kurdish independence for decades before the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein.
"Change" supporters were more explicit in Sulaimaniya, its Kurdish base.
"This time we will turn the parliament upside down," said Youssef Aziz Ismaeel, 40, a Sulaimaniya construction worker.
The Change bloc is led by former high-ranking officials in the PUK who said they abandoned the establishment when they couldn't persuade others to open the government to more transparency. The top Change candidate is Nicherwan Mustafa, a former deputy to PUK leader and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Mustafa and his supporters contend the dominant parties have benefited at the expense of the Kurdish people by awarding favored supporters plush construction contracts and keeping lucrative businesses within their families.
"They own everything in this government," said Usman Jamil, an Irbil high school teacher who's running for parliament with an alliance of Islamic and communist parties. "They have control. That has people fed up and ready to change them."
KDP and PUK members aren't buying the claims of the "Change" party. "They feel they're responsible for all the positive things that have been accomplished but are far away from the negative things. I believe our people are too smart to believe these slogans," said Dilshad Shahab, a KDP leader campaigning for his party's alliance with the PUK.
The two dominant parties are taking the debate in stride and have promised reforms if they secure a second term. It's hard to find someone betting against Massoud Barzani's re-election as the president of the Kurdistan region, in a race paralleling the parliamentary battle.
"The debate shows that there is freedom here. Everyone faces competition, and we regard that as positive and something new in the entire Middle East," Shahab said.
He promised more transparency if elected — such as by announcing construction projects and publicly seeking bids. He claimed the infrastructure contracts that draw fire from opposition parties had to be awarded fast to create an attractive environment for economic development in the Kurdish provinces.
Barzani's KDP is running on its record. Irbil, the Kurdistan Regional Government's capital, has a skyline marked by cranes aside tall buildings. The region is far more secure than Baghdad. Traffic runs smoothly. It has more reliable electricity than other parts of Iraq, and there are few of the military checkpoints that characterize the rest of the country.
The Kurdish region had a running start in terms of development and government against Baghdad. The American military created a protectorate in 1991 after then-dictator Saddam Hussein committed mass atrocities against Kurds.
Kurds also have a strong influence in the central government. Along with Talabani, the country's deputy prime minister and foreign minister hail from the Kurdish provinces.
Still, the Kurdish government and Baghdad have been unable to settle disputes over which body controls the contested city of Kirkuk. Baghdad also has raised questions about oil contracts the Kurdish government has approved without the central government's consent.
"We want to sit" with the central government," said Change party leader Usman Banimarani, a former regional parliament member from the PUK. "We are ready to have a positive dialogue."
The Kurdish parliament has 111 seats, 80 of which are held by the alliance of the KDP and the PUK. Eleven seats are reserved for minorities, such as Christians and Turkomen.
Officials wouldn't guess how many seats the KDP-PUK alliance could lose to the Change party, but their supporters hope the new group will gain more than a dozen.
"People like changing. People are tired with the government of the past 18 years. People want an open government. We are all Kurdish people and we need an open government," said Irbil resident Salaam Mohammed, 34.
(Ashton reports for the Modesto Bee.)
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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq