Iraqi Kurds Head Out to the Polls

Voters in Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdistan region lined up hours before polling places opened to cast their ballots on Saturday in local presidential and parliamentary elections, LAT reported.

Security was tight as Kurdish internal security forces guarded polling places and election workers frisked voters at the entrance, many of whom wore traditional Kurdish costumes - women in glittering robes and men in neatly pressed vests and puffy pants held by wide sashes around their waists.

Despite the pageantry and ceremony, there was little doubt here that the governing coalition would maintain its ironclad grip on this region of 4.5 million people. Many Kurds credit the regional government for the relative security and prosperity the region enjoys compared with the rest of Iraq.

"I want to preserve the progress that we have achieved," declared Saada Majid, 42, reflecting the view of many residents as she was being assisted in her wheelchair into a polling station in the working-class neighborhood of Azadi.

The coalition of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or K.D.P., and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or P.U.K., formerly rivals, control the region's government and economic resources, its armed forces and a vast patronage network. And the region's tense relations with the central government in Baghdad over boundaries and the division of energy revenues bolster a desire for internal unity that also benefits the current government.

Still, a challenge mounted by a coalition called Gorran, or Change, while unlikely to seriously dent the government's majority, added a bracing air of competition to the race and at least the flavor of pluralism.

Gorran, headed by Nawshirwan Mustafa, a former P.U.K. insider, hopes to capitalize on disenchantment with the status quo, and a feeling that the two-party monopoly has become autocratic, nepotistic and corrupt.

"They have been in power for 18 years and they have done nothing for the people," said Faiq Salih, 37, a day laborer from Azadi who said he was voting for Gorran.

As he waited to vote, Mr. Mustafa and his family arrived in a convoy of seven sport utility vehicles bristling with armed guards, and strode into the Azadi polling station to be the first to cast their ballots.

"We regard this day as a turning point in contemporary Kurdish political history," Mr. Mustafa said in an interview earlier at his home in the neighborhood of Girdi Ali Naji. "It is the first time there is such intense demand for change."

He said the whole social and political order of Kurdistan needed reform that the governing parties were incapable of delivering. "Their goal is to remain in power," he added.

And most people here predict that they will. None of the four candidates for the region's presidency are thought to have a chance against the incumbent, Massoud Barzani, who is also the K.D.P.'s chairman.

Even if some of the other 23 parties and coalitions chip away at the overwhelming majority enjoyed by the two ruling parties in the region's Parliament, the institution is viewed as weak and unlikely to be able to effect change.

Still, the government is watching this challenge warily and trying to absorb its lessons.

"We have shortcomings and we hear them loud and clear," said Qubad Talabani, the region's Washington representative and son of the P.U.K. chairman and Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani. "We know that we cannot have business as usual."

Mr. Talabani promised that the next government would tackle administrative reforms and corruption, increase transparency - especially when it comes to budget allocation - and provide better basic services.

Barham Salih, who is slated to be the region's next prime minister if the governing coalition wins, also sought to steal Gorran's thunder.

"We are the real change," he said in an interview, as aides buzzed around him getting the latest reports from the ground on their telephones.

In accordance to the power-sharing agreement signed between the K.D.P. and P.U.K. in 2005, Mr. Salih of the P.U.K. will give up his post as Iraq's deputy prime minister. He will take over as regional premier from Mr. Barzani's nephew, Nechirvan Barzani.

But already one K.D.P. official is saying that deal could fall apart if the governing coalition loses ground in Sulaimaniya, the base of the P.U.K. as well as Gorran.

"The degree of dissatisfaction is more in Sulaimaniya that anywhere in Kurdistan," said a senior K.D.P. official who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of his remarks. "In Sulaimaniya there are many centers of power and that has created such a bad situation."

The K.D.P. and the P.U.K. fought a bitter civil war in the 1990s but buried their differences after the American-led invasion in 2003 to maximize their political gains. Tensions have persisted nonetheless.

Preliminary election results could emerge as early as Sunday.

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