PUK and KDP Face Challenge

The new Change list threatens to limit power of region’s political giants in upcoming ballot.

PUK and KDP Face Challenge

The new Change list threatens to limit power of region’s political giants in upcoming ballot.

Friday, 24 July, 2009
For the first time in three decades, Iraqi Kurdistan’s two powerful parties are confronting a serious challenge from opposition candidates.

A record 24 lists are facing off in the parliamentary polls following a hard-fought campaign that has attracted unprecedented attention from the public.

But three coalitions are expected to capture the vast majority of votes.

Kurds will also elect their region’s president in a contest the incumbent Massoud Barzani is expected to win by a wide margin. Both members of parliament, MPs, and the president will serve for four years.

In the second of two articles, IWPR answers some key questions about the vote on July 25.



The Kurdistani list is the coalition of the region’s two most powerful parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK. Currently, the two parties hold a total of 76 seats in the 111-seat parliament.

The KDP enjoys enormous support in Dohuk province and is also very popular in Erbil. The Kurdistani list is widely expected to win the most seats despite a growing opposition in the PUK stronghold of Sulaimaniyah – Kurdistan’s largest province.

The list has recognised voter frustrations and is pledging to deliver better services, reconstruction and good governance.

It is emphasizing its record in attracting investment and providing security to the region, which has been sheltered from the violence plaguing the rest of Iraq.

The coalition, which is led by Iraqi Kurdistan’s most prominent military and political leaders, is campaigning as the most qualified defender of the Kurds and Kurdish interests.

The Kurdistani list is headed by Iraqi deputy prime minister Barham Saleh, a popular leader who some speculate may serve as the next prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, KRG.

The list does not envisage an independent Kurdistan but strongly backs the right to create a federal region within Iraq.

Relations between the KRG and Baghdad have grown tense recently as prime minister Nuri al-Maliki pushes for a stronger central government – a move that many Kurds fear will weaken their partial autonomy.

Like the other leading Kurdish lists, the Kurdistani list wants a constitution-mandated referendum to be held to determine whether disputed territories – including oil-rich Kirkuk - are governed by the KRG or the central government.

Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens all lay claim to the hotly-contested province of Kirkuk. A referendum on it has been delayed three times and there are concerns that holding it could ignite an ethnic war.

The delays have angered Kurds who regard the disputed territories as part of Iraqi Kurdistan and believe voters there will choose the KRG. Opponents of the Kurdistani list have blamed the ruling parties for the delays during their campaigns.


The reform-focused Change List is campaigning on an anti-corruption, anti-establishment agenda fuelled by voter frustration with the two powerful Kurdish parties.

Critics say civic and private life is dominated by the parties – so much so that party nepotism is required for Kurds to, for example, secure good jobs, establish large private businesses and purchase land.

Change is a newcomer to the political scene and has no seats in the current parliament.

The list, which is headed by former PUK leader Nawshirwan Mustafa, is threatening to turn Iraqi Kurdistan’s political system on its head by limiting the PUK and KDP’s power in government, business and the armed forces and by cutting public subsidies to parties.

The Change list pushes for an independent judiciary and parliament, which it accuses of rubber-stamping the government’s agenda. Change also says it will deliver better services and more jobs.

It says it wants “friendly relations” with neighbouring countries and that it will “respect the supreme authorities of the federal government”.

The positions indicate that Change will not advocate for an independent Kurdish state and may push for better relations with Baghdad and Turkey.


The Service and Reform list is a coalition between two Islamist parties, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, KIU, and the Kurdistan Islamic Group and two leftist parties, the Toilers Party and the Social Democrat Party. They say they are united under a nationalist platform.

The four parties have a combined share of 18 seats in the current parliament.

Like Change, Service and Reform pledges to provide better services and a stronger parliament. It also emphasises social and women’s issues.

The Islamic parties, led by the KIU, want a greater role for religion in public life, but Service and Reform only briefly mentions Islam in its platform.

The KIU was the leading opposition party before Mustafa created his list but it has never posed a threat to PUK and KDP’s power, in part because many Kurdish voters do not mix religion and politics.

However, the KIU successfully pushed for the inclusion of a clause in the KRG’s draft constitution that would make Islam a source of legislation – a controversial provision for many of the region’s secularists.


The Kurdistani list’s fiercely loyal support base in Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah includes leaders of the Kurdish guerrillas, known as Peshmerga, high-ranking officials, veterans and hundreds of thousands of party members.

Supporters argue that Kurds, historically a persecuted minority in Iraq, need powerful, established incumbents to strengthen the region economically and ward off threats from neighbours.

The Kurdistani list also has widespread support among Kurdish tribal elders, who can have great influence over the vote, particularly in rural areas.

Economic concerns are a big issue in this election, particularly outside the cities. But as voters tend to cast their ballots based on personalities, loyalty or ideology, Kurdish parties generally enjoy a broad base of support across class lines.

The Change list is likely to cut into the PUK’s traditional voter base in Sulaimaniyah. Mustafa’s credentials as a former PUK military and party leader have attracted the support of many PUK veterans and loyalists who say they are fed up with incumbents.

The Change list’s supporters include many younger Kurds from Sulaimaniyah.

As Mustafa is an ardent secularist, it is unlikely that Change will be able to attract Islamic voters who have also expressed frustration with the two parties.

The Service and Reform list was created to combine the Islamist and leftist voter bases of four opposition parties. But there is speculation that the strategy has backfired, and that the parties may have instead isolated voters.

The Toilers Party and the Social Democrat Party are backed by secularists – a potential point of contention for voters who want Islam to play a role in public life. Leftist voters are also likely to be opposed to Islamic influence in politics.

The four parties enjoy support in the three provinces, but the leftist parties have the most backers in Sulaimaniyah, the region’s most liberal city.

It is unclear how voters who are not happy with the Service and Reform list’s coalition will vote, or if they will choose to sit out the election. Swing voters in party-dominated Iraqi Kurdistan are rare, and the parties are betting that their loyalists will back them at the polls.


The current president of the Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, enjoys massive support in Erbil and Dohuk and is expected to be re-elected in a landslide victory. Four other candidates are seeking the presidency in campaigns that are largely segregated from the hotly-contested parliamentary race.

Last month, the KRG’s parliament passed a constitution that expands the president’s powers, including giving the region’s leader the authority to dissolve parliament.

Mustafa and his loyalists are fiercely opposed to the constitution and have pledged to fight it in court and in parliament.

A referendum on the constitution has been delayed indefinitely. The debate over the document is expected to be a major issue when the new parliament convenes.

In a campaign speech on July 19 in Sulaimaniyah, Barzani said he would ask that all clauses relating to the presidency be dropped from the new constitution in order to speed its adoption.

Tiare Rath is an IWPR editor in Sulaimaniyah. IWPR editor Neil Arun contributed to this report from Erbil.
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