Upstart Iraqi bloc seeks ‘peaceful uprising’ in Kurdistan

Prashant’s Note: This article was originally published by AFP on March 6, 2010. It can be found in full here.

by Prashant Rao

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq — In March 1991, Kurdish rebels rose up against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in what is known in the region simply as “the uprising”. Almost 19 years later to the day, a new political force in the region is hoping for a “peaceful uprising” of its own.

After a surprisingly strong showing in Kurdish elections in July, Goran — “Change” in Kurdish — is aiming to break the stranglehold on power held by the region’s two political dynasties, by winning the majority of seats in Sulaimaniyah in Sunday’s parliamentary election.

Goran talks of a peaceful challenge but the stakes are high and there have been armed clashes between its activists and militias loyal to political opponents in recent weeks.

“It is a peaceful uprising,” Mohammed Tawfeeq Rahim, deputy to Goran leader Nusherwan Mustafa, said with a chuckle in the party’s headquarters in Sulaimaniyah, 270 kilometres (170 miles) north of Baghdad.

In a more serious tone, however, Rahim, a graduate of engineering from Britain’s Bath University, made his pitch for change.

“In Kurdistan, we need a new political system,” he said.

“We are talking about the separation of powers, about checks and balances, about the independence of the judiciary, about the parliament to be genuine, for political parties to not interfere in the daily affairs of government.”

Rahim, who is not running for parliament, predicts Goran will win 17 to 20 seats across Sulaimaniyah, the Kurdish province of Arbil, and in Kirkuk, the latter of which is at the centre of a land dispute between the autonomous Kurdish region and the central government in Baghdad.

Goran confounded expectations by gaining 23.57 percent of the vote in Kurdistan’s July elections after running on an anti-corruption platform. Sunday’s poll will be its first national contest.

The party is formed largely of defectors from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, one of two dominant political parties in the region; the other is the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Kurdish president Massud Barzani.

Both main parties, who began a largely successful rebellion against Saddam on March 5, 1991 after the end of that year’s Gulf war, have their own peshmerga (former rebel) militias.

Goran’s success has, for the first time, given the region’s voters a credible alternative to the KDP-PUK hegemony, accentuated by the two parties’ running for parliament on a joint slate.

That choice has turned Sulaimaniyah — the second city in the Kurdish region and centre of power for both Goran and the PUK — and its 17 parliamentary seats, fifth-highest of Iraq’s 18 provinces, into a fierce battleground.

Five people were wounded in a gunfight between PUK and Goran supporters on Friday, the last full day of campaigning before Sunday’s election.

The PUK insists it is unfazed by Goran’s campaign.

“Goran are losing their popularity,” said Emad Ahmed, a former regional deputy prime minister and now senior PUK official, in an interview in the party’s main Sulaimaniyah office.

“Many of their followers have returned to the PUK. They are not a threat to us. … Throughout history, there have been many movements like Goran, that rise rapidly before fading away.”

Ahmed, 55, declined to predict how many seats he expected Goran to take but insisted it would not win the majority in Sulaimaniyah.

PUK officials have underestimated Goran before, however — the PUK’s political office predicted it would win seven seats in the July polls, a party official said, on condition of anonymity; it won 25.

Ahmed criticised Goran for, as he described it, the lack of a unified programme, and said it was happy staying in opposition so it could capitalise on voter anger.

But 47-year-old Sarko Osman, the number 30 candidate for Goran in Sulaimaniyah, disputed that notion.

“That election (in July) was for changing daily life for the people — people were asking for services, electricity, better wages, houses, less corruption,” said Osman, a PUK member for 29 years before switching sides last year.

“Now, we have to go to Baghdad with a national purpose for Kurds.”

Asos Hardi, a Kurdish journalist who founded two of the region’s three main independent newspapers, shook his head when asked if Goran support was falling in Sulaimaniyah, as the PUK’s Ahmed argued.

“No, that’s not right,” said the 47-year-old. “The opposite is true — if you compare it to the election in July, their popularity has grown.

“I’m sure … if the election will go cleanly, I think the PUK will be the third party.”

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