If raw excitement is any indication, big things may be happening in Iraqi Kurdistan. After months of delay, campaign season has finally begun for the autonomous region's July 25 parliamentary elections. Billboards, banners, posters, and fliers are everywhere. Big-name candidates are greeted like rock stars. Patriotic songs blare from cars on the streets. Kurds who were too young to vote in the northern enclave's last election, four years ago, talk eagerly about reform, and their parents and grandparents seem no less enthusiastic. "Everyone feels that this time will be totally different," says Asos Hardi, a veteran journalist and political analyst. "It will be the first time after the invasion that we will have real competition."
Many Kurds would say they've waited far longer than that. Ever since the region effectively gained independence from Saddam Hussein's dictatorship in 1991, its government has been dominated by two political blocs: the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The two groups were once deadly adversaries, but over the years their relationship has grown cozy to the point where they run as partners, with a single unified slate of candidates known as the Kurdistani List. They steamrolled the opposition that way four years ago, and they're trying it again this year. Party leaders say the purpose is to "maintain continuity." Other Kurds believe the real point is to perpetuate the KDP-PUK machine and its control over the oil-rich northern Iraqi enclave. Still, by abandoning any pretense of competition, the two parties have cleared the way for the creation of a reformist party known as Gorran, the Kurdish word for "change." Hardi rates the group as "the strongest challenge to the two ruling parties. Every day they get more popularity and support."
Gorran's leader, a former PUK politician and regional media baron named Nawshirwan Mustafa, says he quit his old party in frustration over several issues: the KDP-PUK stranglehold on power, the failure to provide services to the region's people, and the pursuit of policies that enrich party bosses and their friends. Gorran's platform is aimed straight at those targets. "We will campaign on an anti-corruption, public-services, and infrastructure agenda," says party spokesman Jwamer Mustafa. All across the region—not only in Gorran's stronghold, Sulaymaniyah, but also in the neighboring provinces of Erbil and Duhok—the reformists have plastered their logo on buses, taxis, private cars, T shirts, and baseball caps: a candle on a dark blue background, with orange script promising, "Change is on the way."
The Kurdistani List enjoys some huge advantages in resources, organization, and old political favors and patronage. Those long-term assets haven't deterred the group from making its own sweeping vows of change: more public services and better education, delivered by "the people who struggled in the past"—a none-too-subtle allusion to the peshmerga, the Kurdish guerrillas who spent years fighting in the mountains against Saddam Hussein's Army. (The fact is that Gorran's standard bearer, Nawshirwan Mustafa, is also one of the peshmerga's heroes, just like KDP boss Massoud Barzani and PUK leader Jalal Talabani.) "Renewal and reconstruction," promises the Kurdistani List's omnipresent green-and-yellow logo with the horse in the center. "We plan to make reforms in all aspects—political, economic, industrial, education, health, and women and children—by allocating more funds and drafting more bills," says Sozan Shahab, a Kurdistani List candidate.
A total of 509 candidates are officially competing for 111 available seats among Kurdistan's 2.5 million registered voters. Kurds are praying that the rhetoric won't turn violent while they decide whose promises to believe. Salah Khalil, an Erbil schoolteacher who voted for the Kurdistani List in 2005, is thinking twice about which slate will get his support this year: "We are not asking for a miracle and for everything to change quickly, but there's a lot to be done still, and people are fed up with the situation." Others are more fatalistic. Erbil car dealer Mazhar Mohammed also voted Kurdistani in 2005, but says he won't vote this time because he thinks it will change nothing.
There's already been a poll or two, but none has yet predicted a loss for the KDP-PUK ticket. Most people seem to expect the Kurdistani List to prevail, with Gorran finishing a strong second, making a far deeper dent than such perennial also-ran slates as the Toilers Party and the Islamic Union. A survey by the Kurdistan-based Point Organization for Opinion Polls & Strategic Studies found that 51 percent of respondents believe Gorran poses a serious challenge to the Kurdistani List. The survey (which included the largely Kurdish areas of Kirkuk and Mosul along with Duhok, Sulaymaniyah, and Erbil, the three governates of Kurdistan proper) also found that 49 percent of its 1,000 respondents said the KDP and PUK will use threats and fraud in the election process. Gorran spokesman Jwamer Mustafa accuses the PUK and KDP of sacking government employees who have links to the challengers' list. But Shahab is unapologetic. "No party allows its members to vote for another list," she says. "But they are free to join another party or list and struggle for it." Meanwhile, the Kurdistani List insists that fighting corruption is one of its main priorities, and it promises to establish a committee to do so. But come July 25, the votes will be counted in Baghdad—just to make sure everyone's using the same rulebook.