Iraq's Kurds: Time to Prove Their Democracy

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Hadi Mizban / AP

An election worker at a polling site in Baghdad checks the seal on a ballot box after special early voting for the Kurd-run region in northern Iraq

The Kurdish provinces of Iraq are a world apart from the country inhabited by their fellow citizens. Basic services like electricity and fuel are good and increasingly available to all Kurds. Booming foreign investment has created a business culture complete with plans for a golf course as part of a gated-community outside the capital city of Erbil. There have been no U.S. combat fatalities in the autonomous Kurdish region since the fall of Saddam Hussein, in 2003. But there's one thing the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) can no longer lord over the struggling central government in Baghdad: democracy.

"The KRG has a democracy gap with Baghdad," says Quil Lawrence, author of Invisible Nation: How the Kurds' Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East. "After years of counting on American support because of its pro-Western, secular and, most importantly, pro-democratic image, the Kurdish parliament looks like a rubber stamp shared by the two main parties. Arab Iraq had peaceful provincial elections in January in which some entrenched parties lost and stepped down quietly. The Kurds need to show they can do the same." The Kurds, who speak a different language and are a separate ethnic group from their Arab countrymen, have a chance to do that on July 25, when locals will elect regional members of parliament as well as a new president for the KRG.

Two U.S. Senators who are huge supporters of Kurdish development — John McCain and Joe Lieberman — have sent a letter to Kurdish leaders saying they expect the elections to set a "gold standard" for the Middle East. Indeed, the two dominant political parties are now being challenged by the reformist Change List and various coalitions of religious, leftist and independent parties, which are taking advantage of popular frustration at the level of corruption and heavy-handed governance in the region.

However, breaking the duopoly on power by the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan will be difficult. The two main parties are led by two feudal and politically powerful families, the Barzanis and Talabanis, which, along with their extensive security forces, have waged at times violent civil war against each other. Since 2003, however, the two have cooperated to form a coalition that dominates the Kurdish parliament (as well as the Kurdish contingent to the national legislature in Baghdad). They have also split the most prestigious titles between them: Massoud Barzani is president of the KRG; Jalal Talabani, the President of Iraq. Together, they have ensured that Iraq's transitional law and subsequent 2005 Constitution enshrined a level of autonomy for Iraqi Kurdistan. But their near total control of Kurdish politics is wearing thin with their fellow Kurds.

The Talabani-Barzani alliance has been accused of hoarding the money directed to Kurdistan from both outside investment and Baghdad; critics have also charged it with nepotism, alleging that key political and administrative positions have been handed over to kinfolk or party stalwarts; opponents also say that the budget process lacks transparency. "It's these ideas," says Rebwar Karim Mahmood, a political-science professor at Suleimaniya University, "that opposition parties and groups are using to campaign in the elections." This month KRG prime minister Nechirvan Barzani (Massoud's nephew) launched a process to improve government openness. Qubad Talabani (Jalal's son and the KRG representative to Washington) has been blogging from Kurdistan that the fact that the disputes are public is a sign of a healthy young democracy.

Still, says Mahmood, there have been hundreds of complaints of unfair campaigning from all sides. Opposition posters have been torn down, and the well-off dominant parties have not been shy about throwing their money around, including a major media campaign featuring prominent Kurdish entertainers. Observers are waiting to see if the dominant parties get enough votes to retain control of parliament and the KRG presidency; and, if not, whether they will transfer control. The outcome could well decide how much of an exemplar to the Middle East the Kurds will continue to be.