Calm Erbil Campaign Offers Few Clues

The city has seen little of the lively electioneering that has been a feature of other parts of the region.

Calm Erbil Campaign Offers Few Clues

The city has seen little of the lively electioneering that has been a feature of other parts of the region.

The election campaign has passed quietly by in Erbil, leaving few indications of the city’s political leanings.

Supporters of the dominant Kurdistani list say the silence on the streets shows the opposition is weak. But opponents of the list say the low-key campaigning is ominous - a sign that voters fear openly declaring their sympathies.

The city is the capital of Erbil province, home to some 900,000 of Iraqi Kurdistan’s 2.5 million registered voters. It is a stronghold of the governing Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, and the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG. As such, it is closely associated with the Kurdish political establishment.

The city remains a magnet for Kurds from surrounding areas, who come here in search of employment. To hear them speak of Erbil, one would think its streets were paved with gold. Its wide highways are undoubtedly the smoothest in Kurdistan, ideal for the expensive SUVs that race along them.

Erbil city can seem as if it is on the brink of becoming a boomtown. It has showy supermarkets and gated compounds for wealthy locals and foreign workers. On the outskirts, a new airport terminal is being built. Tall buildings dot the horizon.

But progress on some of the big projects appears to have been frozen. Some fault the global economic downturn, but others blame corruption.

The Kurdistani list denies allegations of wrongdoing and takes credit for sprucing up the province’s image with investment and infrastructure projects. With several of its key leaders holding cabinet posts in the Iraqi government, it can also claim to have advanced Kurdish interests in Baghdad.

Bahjat Khidr, a newspaper vendor in his twenties, said he would vote for the Kurdistani list because of the “unstable political environment in Iraq”.

The largest posters in Erbil city are of the KDP’s leader, Massoud Barzani, who is running for re-election as the Kurdistan region’s president. The KDP and its former rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, are allies in the Kurdistani list, which is widely expected to win the most votes in the province.

Its closest competition appears to come from the Change list, a new grouping that has promised reform and an end to corruption.

The list’s top brass are mostly disaffected former PUK insiders, and their strongest support is in the traditional PUK stronghold of Sulaimaniyah province, east of Erbil.

For the last few weeks, the streets of Sulaimaniyah city have witnessed lively confrontations between Change and Kurdistani list supporters.

No such confrontations have been seen in Erbil, which is dominated by the PUK’s ally, the KDP. Nonetheless, Change leaders are bullish about their prospects here.

Kardo Mohammed, a Change candidate in Erbil, said the list’s supporters feared intimidation by the authorities and would only reveal their sympathies on election day.

Fazil Omar, a Kurdistani list spokesman, dismissed the claims of intimidation, saying Change was making excuses for its unpopularity.

“The list cannot do what it is doing in Sulaimaniyah ... it does not have many supporters in Erbil. This is some of kind of rumour to cover their weak points,” he said.

He also rejected the charge of intimidation, “No supporter has been threatened. They were offered help."

Omar said the relatively calm campaign in Erbil was a sign of political maturity - an indication that its people “no longer wanted street fights”.

The moderate Islamist Kurdistan Islamic Union, KIU, is one of the few smaller parties to have held public rallies in Erbil city. The party’s Service and Reform list is expected to fare well with the province’s generally conservative electorate.

A more hardline Islamist party, the Kurdistan Islamic Movement, KIM, also held a public gathering in Erbil city last week. The movement’s supporters waved white flags from cars and played songs in praise of their faith. The group used to command a militia and its logo shows the Islamic holy book, the Quran, and two crossed rifles.

A young Erbil resident who had not been planning to vote told IWPR he changed his mind after seeing the movement’s long-bearded supporters on the streets. “I will vote for the Kurdistani list to prevent them from turning Erbil into Kabul,” he said.

The rugged northern part of Erbil province can be regarded as the KDP’s rural heartland. The Kurds’ peshmerga militia attracts many young men from local towns. In the days of Saddam Hussein, the region saw fierce fighting between Kurdish guerillas and Iraqi troops.

Today, clan and tribe bind the region’s families to the leadership of the KDP, which has its origins in the guerrilla war against Saddam.

Voting for the Kurdistani list is being treated as a patriotic duty here, according to Ayyam Afandi, a 23-year-old university student from the northern town of Soran.

She describes the region as “a small Texas”, where men can be seen “sitting in restaurants, eating kebabs with their Kalashnikovs beside them”.

Afandi says the Kurdish state owes its strength here to the tribes. “The government gives the tribes space and freedom, in exchange for their co-operation,” she said.

IWPR-trained reporters Rebeen Fatah and Karzan Hamid and IWPR editorial assistant Nabaz Jalal contributed to this report from Erbil.
Iraqi Kurdistan
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