Heavy turnout in Iraq's Kurdistan for contest of new vs. old

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq — Kurdish voters on Saturday packed polling places in Iraq's second election this year, weighing the promises of a new party that pledged to shake up the status quo by exposing corruption in the incumbent regional government.

The election appeared to take place smoothly without serious complaints from parties or voters, though two opposition parties raised questions late Saturday about whether soldiers tried to cast multiple ballots and whether greeters at polling places showed too much support for incumbents.

Those questions could lead to unrest in coming days when Iraq's Independent Electoral Commission discloses results, party leaders suggested.

Samad Mohamed, a candidate from the incumbent Kurdistani List, told Iraqi television that 80 percent of the region's 2.4 million eligible voters participated in the election. The Charge Party, which emerged as the leading opposition group, estimated the turnout at 55 percent.

Most reviews from voters indicated that they felt free to dissent from the government and safe at the polling stations.

"People are really free to vote," said Abdul Rahman Ahmed, 56, who was motivated to cast a ballot for the first time by a spirited campaign between the Kurdistani List and the challenging Change party.

Such reactions could be considered a success in a busy year of voting throughout Iraq that tests the country's political progress since the U.S. toppled Saddam Hussein's government six years ago.

The parties are competing for slots in the 111-seat Kurdish parliament, a body similar to a state legislature. Federalism isn't as well defined in Iraq as it is in America, leading to ongoing disputes over land and oil between the Kurdish government and Iraq's central government in Baghdad.

The mood at polling places remained calm through the morning with many men walking to the polls in traditional Kurdish attire and women filing in wearing colorful dresses. Opposition party leaders complained about activity at the polls later in the day, when they said supporters of incumbents tried to sway votes.

The Change party is suggesting that the Kurdistani List, an alliance between the Kurdish Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, could tamper with the vote. The Change party's campaign centers on allegations that the KDP and PUK run the government to strengthen their positions by withholding information about spending and steering contracts to favored supporters.

"The allied parties already are intimidating people, by firing them or transferring people" when they show support for opposition groups, said Change party candidate Adnan Usman.

Those doubts resonate because the KDP and PUK are embedded in Kurdish society, having governed the provinces since the American military initiated a no-fly zone over their territory in 1991 to protect Kurds from Saddam. The parties control the government workforce, including the police and soldiers who stood outside precincts.

The Kurdistani List responded to that charge by pointing to the tens of thousands of neutral and partisan observers who sat in every polling station across Iraq's three Northern provinces, arguing that they'd report any wrongdoing.

"These are only excuses," said Barzam Ahmed Kurda, a PUK leader in Sulaimaniya. "In the end, the (Change party) will not win and they'll try to create problems. If their reaction is not fair, soldiers and police will stand against them."

An alliance of Islamist and communist parties intends to file a complaint with Iraq's election commission over allegedly incumbent-friendly precinct managers, propaganda near voting places and accounts of soldiers trying to cast multiple ballots. Soldiers were given an opportunity to vote early two days before the general election.

The Change party's dramatic rise over the past few months lured new voters to the polls. It's led by presidential candidate Nicherwan Mustafa, a former PUK leader and deputy to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Mustafa is challenging Massoud Barzani, a KDP leader whose family is identified with the push for Kurdish independence.

Debate between the parties grew tense in Sulaimaniya with rumors of fights and emotional rhetoric arguing that the KDP and PUK haven't done enough to share the government's wealth with Kurdish martyrs who died at the hands of Saddam.

"They don't work for the people," said Rosha Jamal, 22, who complained that young people have been unable to find steady work in Sulaimaniya under the Kurdistani List. Her 52-year-old father joined her in backing the Change party.

Fears that the KDP and PUK could lose influence drew out their loyalists. They highlighted the region's new roads, reliable electricity and steady water delivery as signs that the Kurdistani List has been successful.

"I have suffered a lot to make today," said Haibat Padir, 57, who spent a year in jail as a political prisoner between 1976 and 1977. She went to the polls in a dress covered in Kurdish flags.

"It's blasphemous for me not vote for the Kurdistani List when they need me," she said.

(Ashton reports for The Modesto, Calif., Bee)


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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq