Challengers in Kurdish Elections in Iraq Face Uphill Task

By Nada Bakri
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 19, 2009

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq -- It was not yet noon when Hallo Rasch left his squat, two-story house in this eastern Kurdish city and strode down the road to his office, where a group of black-clad widows sat waiting for him in a sweltering room.

He bowed and thanked them for coming.

"If I wanted power and money, I would have pursued that," Rasch told them. "But I am here because I want to work for you, because I care about you and I want to help you get your rights."

Done, he moved to an adjacent room where several more women, men and children waited. He bowed and thanked them, too.

"If I wanted power and money," he started again, reprising his stump speech.

The campaign season is in full swing in northern Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections Saturday. The two groups in Rasch's office represented supporters that even the 58-year-old presidential hopeful acknowledges are scant, in a bid for office that he acknowledges is quixotic.

Rasch is running as an independent against the incumbent, Massoud Barzani, who was elected president of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2005. The pragmatic and cautious Barzani has been at the center of Kurdish politics -- in the region, in the rest of Iraq and in the broader Kurdish homeland -- since succeeding his father, a legendary guerrilla leader, as head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party more than 30 years ago.

Rasch's uphill candidacy is playing out in a region simultaneously considered the most democratic in Iraq and not all that democratic. Two main parties -- Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, headed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani -- have for years exercised a stranglehold on the region, dividing between them politics, patronage, investments and business deals.

"My candidacy is upsetting this equation," Rasch said in a recent interview from his house in Sulaymaniyah. "It is good for democracy. We can't call it a democracy with only one candidate running."

Rasch and four other presidential challengers are trying to break the two parties' monopoly. By nearly all accounts, they have little chance of winning. But their supporters contend that an electoral victory is less important than what their candidacies represent: an effort to set the stage for a more democratic political life.

Equally important is the backdrop of growing public dissatisfaction with the two main parties. Complaints of corruption, nepotism, high unemployment rates and low wages are common among party supporters and opposition groups alike.

"During the days of Saddam, we had hope that his regime would be toppled one day," said Mohammed Mahmud, a retired teacher, referring to the late Iraqi dictator. "But today we've lost hope. They are the same people and the same faces, rotating again and again."

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