Change party roils Kurdish elections


The party machine of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is pulling out all the stops. On-duty security forces string up PUK banners, and young men break curfew to hang out of cars waving ivy-colored pennants. The streets of Sulaymaniya are a sea of green.

But in the final days before Iraqis vote for a new national parliament, flags of another color are grabbing all the attention. They’re blue, and emblazoned with a burning candle and one word: Change.

The PUK, the longtime ruling party of Sulaymaniya, in northern Iraq’s Kurdistan enclave, is in a fight for its life against the upstart Change movement. And with nerves rattled by a shootout between the two sides, the electoral battle could threaten the stability of a region long deemed the “success story” of Iraq.

“I am ready to die for this flag,” said Change supporter Anwar Omar, 21.

The PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, in a sometimes uneasy alliance, have had a 19-year monopoly on power in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the least, the elections Sunday probably will shatter the PUK’s dominance in Sulaymaniya and chip away at the KDP’s hold in the neighboring provinces of Irbil and Dahuk. The three areas make up the semiautonomous region.

Change party supporters, harnessing anger over “business as usual” politics not unlike the “tea party” movement in the United States, say they’re fed up with endemic corruption and what they call the two parties’ autocratic ways and suffocating grip on economic life in the north.

Mohammed Tofiq once belonged to the PUK’s politburo. Now he’s one of the leaders of Change. He said PUK corruption dated to 1991, when the Kurds first established their semiautonomous enclave, protected from Saddam Hussein. He sharply criticized the PUK leader, Jalal Talabani, now the Iraqi president.

“After the uprising, he became interested in his own power and wealth and his family went into business and he surrounded himself with ‘yes’ men,” Tofiq said.

He disputed Bush administration assertions that Kurdistan was a model for the rest of Iraq.

“The American administration had to say . . . that one part of Iraq was a genuine democracy. They had nothing else,” he said. “I don’t say that. It’s not true. It’s a lie.”

Talabani bristles at the notion that the new party represents genuine reform. “Those who were corrupt are now in Change,” Talabani said in an interview this week.

Billed as “the other Iraq” for its relative absence of suicide attacks and sectarian bloodshed, the Kurdish region has wooed foreign investors since 2003 and enjoyed an economic boom.

But shattering the status quo has the potential to trigger major internal Kurdish violence for the first time since 1998, when Talabani and the KDP’s Massoud Barzani formally ended a four-year civil war that followed the collapse of a power-sharing arrangement.

Mindful of history, Kurdish leaders have vowed to act swiftly to quash any unrest.

The people “have the right to be worried about the situation but the whole context has changed,” Barzani, now president of the region, said in an interview.

“Even if there is a small incident here and there, it will be easily and quickly controlled.”

No one wants to be blamed for jeopardizing the hard-won gains of the enclave, and PUK and KDP officials downplay the strife in Sulaymaniya as the fruit of an emerging democracy.

“It is a scary game sometimes. In Iraq and the new Kurdistan, it is not easy, but I feel blessed that we are part of that generation who in the years to come will be looked at as the founding fathers of democracy,” said Iraqi Kurdistan Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a senior PUK leader.

“Look, we’ve asked for democracy and it has happened, not in its mature sense in every way, but nonetheless it’s politics. . . . People compete for votes. This is good and that is the fundamental story of the place.”

For residents of Sulaymaniya, such assurances are not enough.

They remember the civil war. They note how the PUK’s uniformed security forces patrol their city. And they know the PUK was shocked last summer when Change upset the party in provincial elections here in its stronghold.

Already, there has been violence. A pro-Change rally last month outside the PUK’s headquarters triggered a shootout that left at least three Change supporters wounded and 11 under arrest. Each side accused the other of firing first.

Those arrested included Peshraw Ahmed Hassan Rasul, a former Kurdish peshmerga fighter. In a shabby office filled with glum-faced young men, he described how security forces swooped down on the Change supporters in the hospital, put bags over their heads and whisked them into detention for several days. In turn, PUK members accuse Rasul and others of stirring up trouble.

Rasul worried that come election day, any small incident or rumor of fraud could ignite clashes. “Everyone has guns and handguns in their homes -- you can’t guarantee how they will react,” he said.

The leaders of Change are former PUK members. Its founder, Nawshirwan Mustafa, was Talabani’s second-in-command for 40 years and has the gravitas as a peshmerga veteran to challenge his onetime comrade.

Adding insult to injury, when Mustafa quit the PUK in 2006 over what his people say was the party’s failure to combat corruption, Talabani gave him $10 million from funds he controlled to start a media company and think tank, and leased him property in Sulaymaniya.

That proved to be the seed money for the upstart movement and its slick CNN-style news channel. Now Talabani knows that he helped create those who want to topple him.

“We gave them all these things. They started to . . . say anything against us, and not one of them was hated or arrested,” Talabani scowled. “Which country has this right?”

Ahmed is a Times staff writer. Special correspondent Asso Ahmed contributed to this report.