Opposition Makes Gains in Kurdish Iraq
Unofficial Results Indicate a Win for Ruling Parties but Also a Shift in Influence

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 27, 2009

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq -- The ruling parties of Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region won a comfortable majority in the region's parliament, unofficial results showed Sunday, but a strong performance by the opposition has already begun to rework the balance of power.

In an election Saturday that drew surprisingly high turnout -- nearly 80 percent -- voters chose a president and a 111-member parliament for the Kurdish region in northern Iraq, a land of stunning geography that enjoys a large degree of independence from Baghdad and has emerged as a success story in an otherwise turbulent country.

The ruling parties -- Kurdish President Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani -- ran a joint slate of candidates for parliament. Given their dominance here, with near-total sway over everything from patronage to policies with Baghdad, they were expected to win handily. But dissidents from Talabani's party staged a spirited campaign and appeared to do unexpectedly well, particularly in Sulaymaniyah province, long considered Talabani's stronghold.

Officials with the ruling parties said unofficial results showed their list with 62 to 65 percent of the vote. The opposition's list, known as Change, took 23 to 24 percent, they said, and other parties won the rest. Other reports carried by Iraqi television stations put Change's number a few percentage points higher. Preliminary results were not expected to be released in Baghdad until Monday or Tuesday.

The results could still shift markedly, and officials with Change suggested that the ruling parties may have committed fraud in Irbil and Dahuk, the two other Kurdish provinces. But even if the unofficial results prove accurate, the Change list will have done far better than the 15 seats that opposition and government officials said would have constituted a success. The outcome suggests there was a resounding protest vote against two parties that sometimes treat their dominance of Kurdish life as a battle-won right.

"It's a healthy majority for us, but at the same time, we will have a very healthy opposition within the parliament," said Qubad Talabani, the Iraqi president's son and the Kurdish regional government's representative to Washington.

But the success of Change in Sulaymaniyah, and the fact that many of its leaders are former confidants and lieutenants of Jalal Talabani, may make Talabani's Patriotic Union the big loser in the contest. Nosherwan Mustafa, a founder of Talabani's party and now the head of Change, said the Patriotic Union would be "weaker than ever," although he dismissed suggestions that Change's success could lead to the Patriotic Union's demise.

Within the ruling parties, there was furious speculation over what Change's new power in political life might mean for them. The two parties fought a civil war in the 1990s and, though reconciled and in a partnership, tensions still linger.

Barzani's colleagues have become increasingly bold in saying that top leadership positions should remain in their hands, given the Patriotic Union's showing. That could dim the chances of Barham Salih, a colleague of Talabani's who serves as Iraq's deputy prime minister, from taking the position of Kurdish prime minister, which the parties had already agreed to. The position is now held by Barzani's nephew, Nechirvan Barzani.

"It's still not sorted out," said Mohammed Ihsan, a Kurdish minister aligned with Barzani.

Leaders of Change relished the trouble they were making for the alliance between the two ruling parties, a partnership that they accuse of nepotism and corruption. "It's an agreement for spoils," said Muhammad Tofiq, a Change candidate and former lieutenant of Talabani's who defected from his group last year. "There's no substance to the alliance except, 'This is for you. This is for me.' "

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