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19 February 2010

Kurds fractured before Iraq elections

Goran's emergence has split the Kurdish vote and will weaken the region's bargaining power.

By Henry Smith

Since 2003 the Kurdish region has been a bastion of stability amid the turmoil of Iraq. Foreign companies have put down roots there, the Lebanese pop star Elissa will sing there, and Turkey got over its fear of Kurdish nationalism to trade there — to the tune of $10bn.

However, stability and security are being undone as the dominance of the Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s PUK and the Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani’s KDP is threatened by the emergence of the Goran (or “change”) party.

The strength of the alliance between the KDP and the PUK had previously given the Kurds the confidence to negotiate oil contracts without Baghdad’s agreement, and to push for increased regional autonomy. However, in July last year, Goran campaigned in the northern regional elections on an anti-corruption ticket against the Kurdish Alliance and won 23.6 per cent of the vote.

Goran will compete against the PUK and the KDP in national elections in March, the first time since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein that the Kurdish vote will be split. This development has rocked the Kurdish establishment and damaged the region’s stability — when a Goran meeting was attacked this week, the finger was pointed at Talabani’s PUK.

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The vice-president of Goran’s bloc in the Kurdistan parliament, Shaho Saaed, said: “A PUK militia disturbed a meeting of our electoral list before opening fire and wounding three people.”

As recriminations fly and the region’s reputation for security is dented, the worst effects could be on the Kurds’ bargaining power in post-election negotiations. With the status of Kirkuk, regional division of oil revenues and the integration of the various armed forces all crucial matters requiring attention in post-election bargaining, any lack of Kurdish unity will hamper the region’s ability to reassert itself in post-Saddam Iraq.

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