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Kurdish opposition makes strong showing in Iraq regional elections

Unofficial tallies show Change winning about 25%, making a dent in the hold of the KDP and PUK. But the numbers could change significantly if the opposition's complaints of irregularities hold up.

July 27, 2009|Liz Sly

SULAYMANIYA, IRAQ — A new opposition movement made a surprisingly strong showing in Kurdistan's regional elections, though it did not manage to dislodge the ruling coalition that has dominated Kurdish politics for the last two decades, according to unofficial tallies released Sunday.

But Saturday's poll was clouded by allegations of fraud by the opposition in two of the Iraqi region's three provinces, where the dominant political alliance was reported to have swept the vote.

"We have evidence of massive fraud in Irbil and Dahuk, and we are contesting the results in those two provinces," said Mohammed Tawfiq, campaign manager for the Change slate of candidates.

Change mounted a spirited challenge to the monopoly on power of the two main parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, making this the first competitive election the semiautonomous enclave has seen. Turnout was put at 78.5%, an indication of the enthusiasm the contest has generated among Kurds.

Officials stressed that the figures were unofficial and could change significantly if the complaints of irregularities were found to be valid. But it appeared that 5-month-old Change had won about a quarter of the vote, enough to dent the hold in parliament of the KDP and the PUK, who ran jointly as the Kurdistani List. Another opposition group, Services and Reform, comprising Islamists and socialists, won about 10%, party officials said.

Tawfiq charged that supporters of the KDP had engaged in extensive ballot stuffing at numerous polling stations in Irbil and Dahuk and that in several places, Change election monitors had been threatened and forced to leave.

Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, which is running the election, said it was investigating a number of complaints lodged by opposition candidates but had not yet found any serious enough to affect the outcome of the vote. Official results aren't expected until later in the week, but the parties released the provisional estimates based on the tallies of their own monitors at the polls.

Though the KDP-PUK alliance appears to have won enough votes to form the next government, the result signified the emergence of a new era in Kurdish politics, in which the ruling elite will face challenges to its authority in parliament for the first time.

"We've been preaching democracy for decades, and here it is in action," said KDP spokesman Safeen Dizayee.

The biggest loser was the PUK, headed by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. Both Change and the PUK said the PUK appeared to have lost the vote to Change on its home turf of Sulaymaniya province, casting doubt on whether the party whose leader holds the presidency of the nation can really claim to represent Kurds.

The KDP did better in its own strongholds in Irbil and Dahuk, where, pending the allegations of fraud, it appeared to have won the vast majority of votes. The KDP's Massoud Barzani easily defeated four independent challengers to win the overall vote for the presidency of the semiautonomous region, but he too lost in Sulaymaniya.

The outcome in Sulaymaniya is likely to strain relations between the KDP and PUK, which have jointly run Kurdistan for most of the last 18 years, most recently under a power-sharing agreement under which they split positions and jobs in the government on a 50-50 basis.

Now that the PUK seems to have lost much of its own support base, it will be regarded as secondary in the alliance, said Hiwa Osman, Iraq director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

"The KDP is not going to give them 50-50," he said. "They will see them as the junior partner."

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liz.sly@latimes.com

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