ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - For the second time in seven months Iraqi Kurds head to the polls on Wednesday, this time to elect new representatives for the Iraqi parliament and provincial councils for their own autonomous Kurdistan Region.
Five major Kurdish parties are vying for voters, with rivalries divided into geographical areas where each party feels it has strongest support.
The largest Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) enjoys a strong popular base in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, where it sits in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and in Duhok. The Partriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), meanwhile, is most confident in Sulaimani province and the Garmiyan region.
The reformist Change Movement (Gorran), born after breaking away from the PUK in 2009 and newly powerful after beating the PUK in Kurdish legislative elections in September, has supporters across Kurdistan. But its strength also lies in Sulaimani, where it once held the governorship.
The Islamic Union (Yekgirtu) and the Islamic League (Komal) have also entered the election campaign full scale. Yekgirtu has historically fared well in Sulaimani, and to some degree in Duhok. Komal’s voters are seen scattered in Erbil and some of the smaller towns in Sulaimani province.
The Kurdish parties face a double challenge and are fighting on two fronts: Each wants to get as many candidates into provincial councils, while trying to not lose sight of the seats in the Iraqi parliament.
The last election battle for local councils in Kurdistan was fought some 10 years ago.
In Erbil, Governor Nawzad Hadi from the KDP is fighting to hold on to his post. His campaign has focused on pointing to the development seen in the capital under his watch. He boasts new highways, a modern airport, shopping malls, public parks and community services.
In Sulaimani, where residents complain they lag behind the capital in public services and new infrastructure, candidates from Gorran and PUK are fighting neck-and-neck for the governorship.
Haval Abubakir, who is running for Gorran, has never held public office. But his regular media appearances, which he used to criticize the PUK and the government in general, have gained him popularity across the region.
But over the past several weeks he has also been fighting a campaign to clear his name against accusations that he was once a member of the ousted Baath party, and that he had praised former dictator Saddam Hussein in an official publication. The PUK has dug up documents from two decades ago to use against Abubakir. He rejects the accusations, maintaining he had only contributed apolitical poems to the magazine, and never endorsed the Baath party.
Abubakir’s colorful background aside, the PUK candidate for the post of governor is almost equally popular. Aso Faraydun has been a member of the PUK for years, and boasts a past as a Peshmarga fighter.
An online Rudaw poll last week showed Faraydun with 56 percent of the vote, against Abubakir’s 41 percent, a 15 percent lead.
The competition between Gorran and the PUK intensified in recent weeks after an agreement was signed between the KDP and Gorran on forming a new government, granting Gorran the ministries of Peshmarga and finance, and the position of parliament speaker.
That agreement was perceived by the PUK as a plot to undercut it: Until the parliamentary polls last September for the Kurdish parliament, PUK was Kurdistan’s second-largest party, and KDP’s ally in the KRG.
The reason for the heated election battle is a new set of laws that will grant provincial councils more powers and freedom to handle their budgets. Party leaders see the provincial councils as a step to win popular support for future national polls.
Meanwhile, Kurdish leaders are mindful of the Iraqi parliamentary polls, where they currently have 57 seats, won in the 2010 elections.
The Kurds’ best hope to retain these seats lies within the Kurdistan Region and the surrounding provinces of Kirkuk, Diyala and Nineveh, where there are large Kurdish populations.
Though Kurdish parties are running separately in the Iraqi polls, they will likely form their own united bloc to face their Arab rivals in the Iraqi capital.
The Kurds are not in a position to challenge other Iraqi parties in the center and south of the country, where the fight is between the Shiite and Sunni groups, led respectively by current Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and Ayad Allawi.
Nonetheless, the Kurds are allowed by the constitution to send their MPs to the Iraqi parliament, where they once again focus on passing or stopping legislature that might be detrimental to the Kurdistan Region in the north.
Kurdish MPs in Baghdad have often been criticized by the public for obvious lack of power against an Arab majority, mainly blamed on partisanships and internal divisions. However, they have stood united against Baghdad’s decision to cut Erbil’s budget, procrastination over passing an important oil and gas law and foot-dragging over Article 140, which is supposed to decide on large swathes of disputed territories claimed by both the Arabs and Kurds.
Wednesday’s elections take place at a importune moment for Kurdistan, where political parties are finalizing their deals for a new government. The regional parliament only held its first session on Tuesday. The polls will most certainly slow down the process of forming the long-overdue government in Erbil, still undeclared more than seven months after elections.