Iraqi Kurds Try To Reform Two-Party System

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Iraqi Kurds call their mountainous home "the other Iraq" because it has suffered very little violence since the American invasion. Kurdish leaders also claim to be more democratic than the rest of the country. But lately, some Kurds are demanding changes to their decades-old two-party system.


Iraq's Kurds call their mountainous home the other Iraq because there's been so little violence there since the American invasion. And the Kurds claim they're more democratic than the rest of the country. Perhaps, but they're having trouble even setting the date for their next election. And there's talk of political corruption. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports from Iraqi Kurdistan.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Iraqi Kurdistan is an autonomous region in the north of the country. That's why Kurdish leaders say their elections are on a different schedule. Iraq had provincial elections in January. The Kurds planned theirs for May. But the vote was postponed repeatedly, officially for technical reasons.

Mr. BARHAM SALIH (Deputy Prime Minister, Iraq): This is a nascent democracy. We are trying to establish the basic tenets of democratic government in the heart of the Islamic Middle East.

LAWRENCE: Barham Salih is Iraq's deputy prime minister but he is also a high-ranking member of the Kurdish party led by Iraq's President Jalal Talabani. The other main Kurdish Party is led by Masood Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region. Both parties fought the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein for decades, calling for democracy. But their critics say they now split the power in Kurdistan with no public accountability. Reform is a challenge, Salih admits.

Mr. SALIH: Tell me, reform in U.S. government - is it easy? No, it's good that we are reminded every now and then about that the credibility of the Kurdish region lies in its commitment to democratic ideals and values. And we simply cannot go on justifying by just having been victims of Saddam.

LAWRENCE: Salih himself may be a candidate in the Kurdish elections but the major parties haven't even divulged who's running, and they're fielding a joint ticket as if Democrats and Republicans joined forces and then ran against the Green Party. It's all about protecting their power, says Nawshirwan Mustafa, who's leading an opposition movement.

Mr. NAWSHIRWAN MUSTAFA (Kurdish Politician): There is no government and nobody knows how you spend the general budget. And there is many contracts between companies. Nobody knows how they spend the money.

LAWRENCE: The two traditional parties retort that they need to have a United Front against the growing anti-Kurdish sentiment in Arab Iraq. But Nawshirwan says that excuse is worn out.

Mr. MUSTAFA: All the time they are terrorize our people that there is external threat from Iran, from Turkey, from Syria, from Baghdad. At the moment we think there is no more external threat. The threat coming from inside, from corruption.

LAWRENCE: Nawshirwan Mustafa is not an outsider. He was Talibani's deputy for decades and left only two years ago. Nawshirwan is stern and often abrupt, but he's considered clean, even by a jaded and cynical Kurdish public. Asos Hardi is the editor of an aggressive Kurdish weekly newspaper, Awene. He says even Kurdistan's leaders know their reputation is in trouble.

Mr. ASOS HARDI (Editor, Awene): Always the central government is more powerful than Kurds. One of the power bases that we can depend on is our reputation and sympathy of the international community with our problem. If we lose this, we will become even more weak. I believe the Kurdish politicians are aware about that. And that's what makes me in some way optimistic.

LAWRENCE: But Hardi still worries that Nawshirwan and his allies have an uphill climb. The two ruling parties control security, government, and much of the economy in Kurdistan. In the past, one opposition party had its office burned down. But there may be a large protest vote even outside Nawshirwan's power base.

Unidentified Man (Through translator): Maybe ideologically I'm different from Nawshirwan and I don't like him but in principle I like him because he wants to make a change. And that change is needed in this area. He is the only one who can make the change.

LAWRENCE: At a tea house in the city of Arbil, a student named Ibrahim Ali said that he admires Nawshirwan's past as both a guerilla fighter and an intellectual and that he knows the ruling parties well enough to compete with them.

Mr. IBRAHIM ALI: (Through translator) Nawshirwan is different from the others because he knows all the tricks, who steals what, who does what, who is corrupt.

LAWRENCE: Even if he only wins dozens seats in the Kurdish parliament, it may be an enough to breathe a little bit of real opposition into what so far has been a rubber stamp parliament.

Quil Lawrence, NPR News, Arbil, Iraqi Kurdistan.

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