Saturday, March 6, 2010

Up on the Hill is where you'll find us

We are now in the final stages of the pre-election effort in Iraq – and the day before the vote, fingernails are being sharpened.

Last night another large rally honked its way past my apartment, this time PUK. I would guess that over a thousand people went past over two or three hours, including a fairly impressive motorcade of about 50 identical white jeeps covered in party flags. It seemed larger than the somewhat more ragtag and unofficial opposition Gorran (‘Change’) brigade that went past last week. However, the PUK’s front is deceptive – it may not be as dominant as it seems. At a static rally on the Hill last Wednesday, it was reported that around 10,000 gathered. I have also heard unconfirmed reports that the PUK has paid people up to $200 to participate in rallies in the past week. It could be that Change is in the air, not just up on the Hill.

The PUK’s tactics are also hardening at polling stations. The police and other security forces across Iraq voted on Friday, to free them up for duty on Sunday when everyone else votes. Already some are crying fraud. Allegations are emerging that some officers in Sulimaniyah governorate were declared illiterate and assigned another officer to accompany them into the voting booth to ‘assist’ them – something that is known to have happened in various places during the last election. Several high up security officials have announced in the media that they voted for Gorran, in a pre-emptive attempt to avoid being sacked on trumped up charges, as happened in the last election to some who were suspected of opposition sympathies. This time, officials are giving the media all the facts they need to put two and two together. If they are sacked, the Gorran-controlled media will have a strong story and will make a serious fuss.

In Sulimaniyah, the PUK largely controls the security forces – indeed, a colleague who visited the headquarters of the city security forces, Asaysh, two weeks ago saw police cars decorated with PUK flags in preparation for a rally. Thus the party is particularly sensitive to security officials whose loyalty is questionable. The PUK, still dominant but very much the old establishment, is clearly feeling threatened.

In the interests of neutrality, I should point out that Gorran supporters have been accused of attacks and violence just as frequently as those of the ruling PUK-KDP ‘Kurdistani’ coalition in recent weeks. They are by no means angelic. But they do seem to be pulling large support and might, just possibly, be a more serious threat to the Kurdistani coalition than in the 2009 elections.

Much of Gorran’s support surely stems from the simple fact that it is the new, dynamic, fresh option in Kurdistan – an interesting Youtube video compares Gorran’s leader Nawshirwan Mustafa with Che Guevara. But the party also seems to be making some moves towards national reconciliation which might be pulling voters. In Kirkuk, it is “appealing to voters across ethnic lines, pushing ... services and anti-corruption,” according to a report by the media development NGO IWPR.

Gorran is also requiring all candidates to speak good Arabic. Although the Kurdistani alliance apparently also expects this from its parliamentarians, not all do speak Iraq’s main language, and this seriously restricts their ability to speak in the national parliament. In Iraq’s Council of Representatives or parliament, only Arabic is used and there is no translation. My journalist colleagues have been told by some sources that current Kurdish seat holders, all of whom come from the Kurdistani coalition, do not speak in parliament because they do not understand the proceedings.

This could, however, have its own disadvantages. I have heard of at least one candidate who was approached by Gorran and asked to stand because of his excellent Arabic, despite his having no political or legislative experience whatsoever. The requirement may also have cut young candidates out of the running – it is now almost 20 years since the Kurdistan region became largely independent from Baghdad, and increasingly few young Kurds speak Arabic.

If Gorran does manage to field – and get elected – good, competent Arabic-speaking candidates, it will be making a serious effort towards national reconciliation. While some fiercely argue that Kurds should be allowed to speak Kurdish, since the language is recognised in the Iraqi constitution, others point out that this will do nothing to heal divides between the two groups in parliament. It is certainly the case that Kurds who can build alliances across Iraq’s many divides, rather than stick out as voices of confrontational patriotism, will be more successful in meeting their aims on the national stage. Perhaps Gorran, the new challenger to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and its allies, has realised this.

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