Kurdish Opposition Eyes Kirkuk

Change movement attempts to reach out to all voters in ethnically divided city.
By IWPR reporters in Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah (ICR No. 325, 24-Feb-10)
Iraqi Kurdistan's newest opposition movement is jockeying for power in ethnically-divided Kirkuk in an attempt to challenge the supremacy of the province’s governing Kurdish parties.
The emergence of the Change, or Goran, movement presents direct competition to powerful Kurdish parties that have held de facto control over Kirkuk since 2005.
Change, the most influential opposition group in Iraqi Kurdistan, won 25 seats in Iraqi Kurdistan's 111-seat parliament in its first election only seven months ago. It is now trying to extend its reach into Kirkuk and challenge its main rival, the incumbent Kurdistani Alliance led by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, along with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP.
Change is appealing to voters across ethnic lines by pushing a services and anti-corruption platform similar to the one that helped the group sweep the Kurdish province of Sulaimaniyah last summer.
Observers are closely watching the parliamentary poll in Kirkuk - the only province which has not held an election since 2005 - to gauge which ethnic group and political coalition holds the upper hand in the province. Kirkuk was excluded from the 2009 provincial council elections due to security concerns and a lack of reliable demographic data.
Kirkuk is home to Arabs, Turkoman and Kurds, all of whom lay claim to the district. Longstanding tensions between Baghdad and Erbil over control of the oil-rich province have frequently been cited as the biggest future threat to Iraqi stability after United States forces withdraw in 2011. Resolving the status of the province is expected to be a major issue in the next parliament.
Kurdish parties, led by PUK and KDP, currently hold the most power locally and five of Kirkuk’s nine seats in parliament. Three of the remaining four parliamentary seats are occupied by members of the Arab Council alliance with one belonging to the Turkoman Front.
The Iraqi government has increased Kirkuk's parliamentary seats from nine to 12 for the upcoming election. An additional seat has been set aside for the province's Assyrian Christian minority.
"Goran has also made it very clear it wants to be seen as strong in Kirkuk. It has been very upset about how the PUK and KDP have handled the Kirkuk question since 2003 and even if it agrees with them on what Kirkuk’s status should be … it wants to show its own strength in Kirkuk," Joost Hiltermann, Middle East deputy programme director for the International Crisis Group, said.
A constitutionally-mandated census and referendum to determine whether Kirkuk is incorporated into Iraqi Kurdistan or kept under the central government has been delayed for years over concerns that the process could ignite ethnic violence. The delays have been a major source of frustration for Kurds, who hope the referendum will pave the way for Kirkuk’s incorporation into Iraqi Kurdistan.
But interviews in Kirkuk found that local issues such as basic services, jobs and security are now foremost among the competing parties' campaign pledges. Representatives from Kirkuk's main coalitions told IWPR that new platforms had been adopted to attract citizens who are unhappy with the political status quo.
Change is seizing on voter frustrations in Kirkuk in an effort to challenge the Kurdistani Alliance by blaming the ruling parties for not serving the city’s residents.
"Many cities in Kurdistan need improvement, but Kirkuk needs it most of all. Look around, nothing works here. The ruling parties have let the people down. Now everyone is suffering - Kurds, Turkoman, Arabs, Christians, everyone," said Inne Abdul-Samad Abdula Qadir, who goes by the name Anna Khanaqa and is a Change candidate in Kirkuk.
The Kurdistani Alliance is attempting to counter Change by pledging to improve services such as electricity and water and by bringing in top party leaders to win over voters.
Iraqi president and PUK leader Jalal Talabani, who was born in Kirkuk and whose political base is in Sulaimaniyah, arrived in the province last week to drum up support for the Kurdistani Alliance. Five other senior party officials from Sulaimaniyah, where Change is running a tough race against the PUK, are also campaigning for the alliance in Kirkuk.
"President Talabani will be in Kirkuk for the entire campaign period. He came to gain votes for his party and to see an effective PUK. The people of Kirkuk know how much he helped during the hard times," PUK spokesman Muhammad Osman said.
The Change spokesman in Kirkuk, Muhtassim Najmadeen Jabr Ameen, predicted the movement would win at least four parliamentary seats in the city.
However, the PUK, which holds the city governor and the chief of provincial council posts in Kirkuk, scoffed at the estimate.
"Change is not popular in this city. They didn't make any contributions to Kirkuk in hard times. I predict seven seats for the Kurdish parties and we will get six of them. The Change list will be lucky to get one," Osman said.
In an effort to win over more voters, Kurdish parties are campaigning in Arab and Turkoman areas, and many Turkoman and Arab coalitions are also trying to appeal to voters across ethnic lines.
Kirkuk's ethnic parties say they have changed their electoral strategy from 2005 when the various Turkoman parties stood collectively as the Turkoman Front and the Arab tribal parties competed under the Arab Council alliance.
“In this election we have different approach. We, the Turkoman parties, didn’t form one list. Instead, each candidate joined a different main list to have a strong voice. In the previous election, we had one list and we lost many votes,” Jamal Shan, head of the Turkoman National Party, said.
For example, Ali Mahdi, deputy secretary of Kirkuk's Turkoman Eli party, is running as a candidate on the Iraqi National Alliance list, a nationwide Shia party headed by the cleric Ammar al-Hakim. Mahdi believes that grassroots initiatives aimed at Sunni and Shia Turkoman have created a large popular voting base.
"We have a great chance to win the election. In fact, I expect that we will get 70 per cent of the vote because as a party we have started major projects to serve the city of Kirkuk. The people know we will work for better utilities, roads and schools," Mahdi said.
Mahdi and Shan both praised Change's election platform and said the new movement had attracted some Turkoman and Arab voters.
"We are living in a democracy so we should expect Change to enter the election in Kirkuk. I believe that this list will win some votes, but the majority of the votes will go to the two key Kurdish parties [the KDP and PUK]. Voters who were disappointed with these two parties will turn to Change as an alternative,” Mahdi said.
The leader of Kirkuk's main Arab party told IWPR that aligning with national parties will also help the Arab cause in the city.
“Our chances are very good this time because we are participating in the Iraqiya list, the most popular list among Arab in Kirkuk and Iraq. This list stands for national programmes and isn't linked to sects or ethnic groups," Omar Jwad Aljbury, senior leader of Kirkuk's Iraqi Arab Coalition, said.
Aljbury believes that public discontent with the main Kurdish parties will benefit Change, and did not rule out a possible alliance with the new group.
“I see main common points between the platform Change list and our list, so this paves the way to form a coalition after the election and better serve the people of Kirkuk," he said.
"Together we could prove the Iraqi identity of the city. This is a vision that the other Kurdish parties don’t like.”
However, PUK spokesman Osman remained unimpressed with Change.
“I don’t like to prejudge before the outcome of the election, but because PUK has so many decades of history and struggle, it will gain most of the votes," he said. "If another party wins more votes, I will be the first person to congratulate the winner."
IWPR-trained journalist Samah Samad in Kirkuk and IWPR Iraq local editor Hemin H Lihony in Sulaimaniyah contributed to this report.