Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A rainy election trail in Iraqi Kurdistan

Ella Rolfe

Kurdish party politics is a strange business. Driving through the city of Sulimaniyah in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region last Saturday evening, in torrential rain, I passed a political rally in full swing. Outside the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or PUK, the area’s dominant party, about a hundred people were gathered, waving flags, making noise, blocking the road, jumping up and down. A few jabbed umbrellas up and down as they chanted – most just looked drenched. My travelling companion commented that since this is spring rain, people are not afraid they will fall ill, despite the freezing cold.

The Kurds are known for their endurance of the harsh climate of their mountainous region, and also for their fierceness in war. Both endurance and fierceness seem to be central to Kurdish election preparations. Campaigning for Iraq’s upcoming election officially opened at midnight of 11-12 February; by half past the hour, the area around my apartment block were filled with activists. By morning, each street was criss-crossed with strings of flags of at least three different parties.

And the campaign busses started. Almost every evening since then – over two weeks – cars and busses crammed with supporters of one party or another have screamed past my home, horns blaring and with huge flags poking out of every available space. Occasionally an entire rally consisting of twenty or more motorbikes and a few pickup trucks has cascaded by. One night this street entertainment is dominated by the ruling coalition of the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party or KDP, with green flags or the tricolour of Iraqi Kurdistan’s flag; another night it will be the blue banners of the opposition, Change, that colour the scene. Always, the busses are full of young men. It’s like football, but louder.

After a week of this, the city authorities apparently tried to ban such campaigning after 9pm. It made no difference, and no one is sure if the ban is still in effect. For the last couple of days, rain has reduced the frequency, but the occasional pickup motorcade still swings by.
Such vociferous campaigning stems partly from history. Kurdistan’s two main parties, the PUK and the KDP, spent much of the 1990s engaged in a bloody civil war against each other, with the KDP occasionally backed by Saddam Hussein’s regime against their fellow Kurds and Iran weighing on both sides at various points. Although the two parties signed a peace agreement in 1998 and are now working together, each still controls much of local government, security forces, and media in one half of the Iraqi Kurdistan region.

In this context, political parties have been the main forum for loyalties and group identity within the region for decades. Kurds are not too concerned about ethnic or religious differences among themselves, and so political party alliances replace these to run deep and strong in the region’s culture. The seismic political shift in last year’s provincial elections, with the KDP and PUK allying and the emergence of the new opposition Change party (Gorran in Kurdish), has simply upped the ante.

I am not sure that these tactics succeed in winning votes from the undecided. Indeed, they can be intimidating. There have been several violent clashes in the last two weeks between supporters of rival parties, and between campaigners and police. On February 16, PUK supporters attacked a Change rally, wounding three and kidnapping 13 according to the Change statement; and there have been similar scuffles since. Gun shots are heard almost every night in Sulimaniyah – I am told many are fired in the air, but I do wonder about those that are not.
Kurdistan is often seen as a safe haven in Iraq, and consequently the election here is getting less media attention. After all, in Sulimaniyah people are injured – in Baghdad, they are more likely to be blown up. But politics is just as contentious in Sulimaniyah as in other areas where sect or ethnicity dominate.

As I write, shouts and car horns float up to my fourth floor window. The rain has stopped and the bus boys are back, this time with a megaphone. I didn’t think they would be deterred for long.

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