Northern City Set for Election Battle

Enthusiastic supporters take to the streets of Sulaimaniyah as two parties prepare to face off.

Northern City Set for Election Battle

Enthusiastic supporters take to the streets of Sulaimaniyah as two parties prepare to face off.

A lively campaign has awakened Sulaimaniyah, transforming a one-party province into the most hotly contested region in Iraqi Kurdistan’s parliamentary election.

Sulaimaniyah is the key battleground for two leading coalitions which are going head-to-head in the first truly competitive campaign in the region’s history.

Two dozen lists and parties are contesting 111 Kurdistan Regional Government parliamentary seats in the July 25 poll, which will be held in the KRG’s three provinces.

The newly-formed Change list, which is based in Sulaimaniyah, is the chief challenger of the incumbent Kurdistani list, a powerful alliance led by the biggest names in Iraqi Kurdish politics.

Sulaimaniyah residents boast that any political shift in Kurdistan will be born in their mountainous city, widely considered the most secular in Iraq.

"The campaigning is hotter in Sulaimaniyah because its people are more open and intellectual than the people of Erbil and Dohuk," said Rebaz Abulrahman, a 29-year-old street vendor.

Corruption, services, housing and economic development are key campaign themes here.

The election is the topic of discussion in the streets and homes, with voters becoming increasingly partisan as a bitter rivalry grows between the two main competitors.

Change list’s boisterous supporters – particularly young Kurdish men - are especially public about their allegiance. They appear in their cars and SUVs after sundown, and can be heard blasting music, blaring horns and yelling from car windows until well after midnight.

Traffic cops – who act as stoplights in this city – say that in spite of the chaos they are not enforcing traffic laws for fear of being accused of bias. The incumbent parties have dominated Iraqi Kurdistan’s politics for nearly 20 years.

After work, Change supporters decked out in navy blue march down the city’s main streets, followed by convoys of vehicles with blue flags fluttering out of the windows.

Change list is pushing to break two decades of rule by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK. Led by PUK co-founder Nawshirwan Mustafa, the list pledges to reform government, eliminate corruption and provide better jobs and services.

Sherzad Majid, a 32-year-old teacher, said the two ruling parties, which have governed the region since 1991, have used power “for their own interests and those of their families and relatives ... We want a party that can serve the people; that party is Nawshirwan and his list".

Yet politics here has long focused on big personalities and on the past. Nostalgia for Kurdish culture, ethnic pride and the history of injustices against Kurds, Iraq’s largest ethnic minority, are routinely evoked.

One of Change list’s campaign songs plays on similar themes, with lyrics such as “my leader is Nawshirwan” and “thousands of fascists and Baathists could not defeat him”, in reference to Mustafa’s role as a senior PUK guerrilla leader.

Mustafa now owns a major media company, Wisha, which was launched in 2007.

Mustafa’s forested compound overlooks the city of Sulaimaniyah. Known simply as “The Hill”, the campaign team has anchored massive blue and white balloons from it that can be spotted from miles away.

The compound has a direct view of the city’s highest mountain, which the rival Kurdistani list has claimed. “Kurdistani list” and “Massoud Barzani” are etched in lights at the top, glowing above the city at night.

Barzani, who is the Kurdistan region’s president, is seeking re-election.

Huge campaign pictures of the smiling leader are prominently featured in Sulaimaniyah – an unusual sight in a city that is PUK leader and Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s territory and is normally littered with his pictures.

Barzani’s KDP fought the PUK in a bloody civil war in the 1990s. While some Kurds have never got over this, the parties are now political allies, and PUK is campaigning for Barzani.

Halmat Sharif, a 41-year-old civil engineer, said he will vote on behalf of Kurdistani list “for Mam Jalal” – an affectionate nickname for Talabani.

“They will be the ones who will protect us,” Sharif said. “If not for them, the Arabs would annihilate us.”

Sharif noted that Mustafa, as a PUK leader and senior Peshmerga leader, was an insider for decades, “so I don’t think he can make changes”.

Huge posters of Barzani and Kurdistani list hang from buildings and lamp posts along Sulaimaniyah’s main streets.

The face of the list is Iraqi deputy prime minister Barham Saleh, a respected PUK figure with a strong personal following in the province. The Kurdistani list is betting that Saleh will draw in Sulaimaniyah residents who noisily complain about the political establishment.

Kurdistani list has claimed the Kurdish flag as part of a campaign theme that it is the embodiment of modern-day Iraqi Kurdistan. Tiny Kurdish flags are strung across major streets, including where powerful Kurdistani list loyalists own businesses.

Flags are an important symbol in this campaign, and are often strung up on streets as a way for campaigns to mark certain neighbourhoods as their territories. While most belong to the Kuridstani list or Change, one small roundabout in Sulaimaniyah that is home to the Communist party’s campaign headquarters is a sea of red.

With its massive posters and colourful flags, Kurdistani list has a stronger visual presence than its competitors.

While supporters zip around Sulaimaniyah with Kurdish flags on their cars, the list lacks the street support of its main competitor. Kurdistani list backers primarily gather at huge rallies, and many supporters campaign door-to-door.

Osman Mohamed Amin, an undecided voter and owner of a dry-cleaning shop in Sulaimaniyah, said he has never seen such excitement for a poll. But even as campaign fever rises, he is sceptical about politics.

“No party can please everyone,” he warned.

IWPR-trained journalists Pishtiwan Jamal and Rebaz Mahmoud contributed to this report.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
Support our journalists