'Change' party scores breakthrough in Kurdish elections

IRBIL, Iraq — A yearning for change at the ballot box cracked the political lock Kurdish Iraq's two leading parties held on the region's government for the past 17 years, sweeping into parliament a new group that's pledged to expose graft and corruption.

Unofficial results from Iraq's Independent High Election Commission Monday indicate the newly formed Change Party won 25 of the Kurdish Parliament's 111 seats in Saturday's election, giving it a solid minority to challenge the ruling blocs.

The ruling Kurdistani List, however, comprised of two long-reigning parties, is expected to retain a majority in parliament with 61 seats — down from 78.

Government and opposition praised the election for seats in a parliament that represents three northern Iraqi provinces as free and fair, though opposition parties are preparing complaints alleging fraud in voting stations.

The election pitted incumbents who take credit for making Iraq's Kurdish provinces the safest and most economically vibrant in the country against an opposition party that accused the region's political elite of enriching themselves at the public's expense. That dynamic drew 78.5 percent of the region's 2.4 million eligible voters to the polls.

"This is the first time the Kurdish people saw a new agenda from a list without police, without the military and without money," said Shorsh Haji, a Change Party leader in Irbil. "That's our first victory. People learned they can say 'no' to authority."

Members of the Kurdistani List, the ruling alliance of the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, similarly commended the vote, though they acknowledged that they would've preferred to hold on to a few more seats.

The elections "were fair, they were transparent and they were hotly, hotly contested," said Qubad Talabani, the son of Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi president and PUK leader.

The Kurdistani List's members — the KDP and PUK — once were rivals in civil war during the 1990s, but they've worked closely together since the U.S. toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

The Kurdistani List also will keep the presidency with the KDP's Massoud Barzani, winning 70 percent of the vote in his re-election bid. His primary competitor was the Change Party's Nicherwan Mustafa, a former PUK leader and Talabani aide.

It's not clear what significance the election holds for relations between the Kurdish Regional Government and Baghdad's central government. The two bodies have been at odds over territory, in particular the city of Kirkuk.

Both the Kurdistani List and the Change Party insist on holding a referendum in Kirkuk that likely would result in the Kurdish regional government annexing the oil-rich city. Baghdad has been looking for another solution to the dispute.

Reports of violence Sunday night somewhat marred the election results. Gunfire from automatic weapons could be heard for about three hours into early Monday morning as people shot into the sky to celebrate the outcome.

Irbil police said those exchanges left one dead and 10 injured. Political parties and police consider those injuries accidental.

"It was a personal decision for people to show their happiness," said Sherwan Haidary, a member of parliament from the KDP. "We can find better ways to show our happiness."

Some of the shooting appeared targeted at Change Party offices. One office in the town of Banswala outside of Irbil was circled for hours Sunday night by two cars of men who fired guns and threw rocks at the building, witnesses said.

"It was systematic. It was planned," said Himdad Mohammed, whose 20-year-old brother hid in the office while it was vandalized.

"I would never vote again in my life," said Mohammed Amin, 58, who lives next door to the Change office in Banswala. He supported the incumbent parties.

Kurdistani List representatives portray those incidents as a result of rowdy crowds who eventually were turned away by police.

The Change Party built momentum over the past three months by accusing the incumbent parties of using the region's wealth to bolster their own positions at the expense of the Kurdish people. Their complaints hit home with Kurds who see their cities becoming more prosperous but suspect the new wealth is going to only a handful of people among the well-connected elite.

"People are frustrated and fed up with current administration and the lack of social justice," said the Change Party's Haji.

Kurdistani List officials responded to those accusations by acknowledging mistakes and promising to create a more transparent government in their next term.

"Maybe we were wrong in that we didn't effectively refute some of the charges against us," Qubad Talabani said. "Emotions run high in elections, and we didn't want to inflame them."

The KDP's Haidary said the election showed "We are not people known only for suffering because of Saddam. This election proved we are different."

(Ashton reports for the Modesto Bee.)


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