Kurdish Elections May Flush Old Guard

There was an upset in Northern Iraq this weekend. The semi-autonomous Kurdish region held Parliamentary elections yesterday that for the first time included a viable opposition. And it looks like the old guard parties that have long dominated Kurdish politics are being given a run for their money. Host Liane Hansen speaks to NPR Baghdad Bureau Chief Quil Lawrence about the elections.

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LIANE HANSEN, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

There was an upset in northern Iraq this weekend. The semiautonomous Kurdish region held parliamentary elections yesterday that for the first time included a viable opposition. And it looks like the old guard parties that have long dominated Kurdish politics are being given a run for their money.

NPR: An In-Depth Examination of Kurdish Politics." He's been in the region for the past few days watching all of this unfold and joins us now from Iraq. Hi, Quil.

QUIL LAWRENCE: Hi, how are you?

HANSEN: I'm well, thank you. I understand there are no official election results yet, but what do you know so far?

LAWRENCE: Well, the preliminary results were quite surprising. As you said, the old guard parties usually expect to just show up and sort of collect their winnings between the two of them and then divvy up the seats and the ministries in this government.

But I was hanging out at their command center last night and I saw Dr. Barham Salih, who's the deputy prime minister of Iraq and one of the leading politicians up there, and the first thing he said to me was it doesn't look good. But he was saying, well, we have to accept these results. We can no longer take our voters for granted. So it's really quite exciting up there. It seems like a new era in politics.

HANSEN: Talk a little bit about this. Does it have wider implications for the political landscape as a whole?

LAWRENCE: It does, absolutely. A more representative government up there coming into power because of a wave of protests discussed with corruption and government and inefficiency will then have a knock-on effects because these people will get to possibly choose new representatives to go down to Baghdad on behalf of the Kurds. And that feeds into the very important dispute over land and oil between Kurds and Arabs.

And the Obama administration, among other observers in Iraq, have said that these ethnic disputes are possibly the most important thing to get resolved before the U.S. can think about leaving and leaving a stable Iraq behind.

HANSEN: What about these political figures? Has the first competitive election in the Kurdish region been a challenge for them?

LAWRENCE: I think some of them are adapting to it easier than others. I spoke with Jalal Talabani, who's the president of Iraq, but, again, a major Kurdish figure. Well, he voted yesterday morning. And he was saying: I've always wanted there to be a bouquet of different political parties up here.

But, in fact, he's always been a quite effective in-fighter in the back room deals that usually make up the government afterwards. And it's not clear that some of these guys who are, after all, mountain guerillas who've spent much more time in the hills with AK-47s than they have in the halls of any sort of Congress, it's not quite clear that all of them are ready to adapt.

HANSEN: Describe the atmosphere on the street.

LAWRENCE: Well, people have been telling me since I got to the town of Sulaimaniya that they were going to vote for this change movement, which has a lot - a very catchy logo, a candle on a blue background - stole some slogans from the Obama campaign. And all of my old friends up there and many random people I spoke to said that they thought change was going to win. But the conventional wisdom just said that the establishment would take it.

People were out on the street last night when they started hearing preliminary results and well into this morning. The last one, I'd say, about three in the morning, I saw cars out beeping their horns and waving flags out their window that they had done it, they changed their government.

HANSEN: You said you were at one of the party's command centers as the initial numbers were coming in last night. What was the vibe there?

LAWRENCE: Well, I have to say, I texted a friend that it looked like a funeral when I first got there and they were hearing the beginnings of the results. But they had set up a very modern sort of Power Point command center with a whole bunch of laptops. And they were collating all of the data. And as the traditional parties - this was one of the ruling parties I was at - as they started to hear results, they were getting excited, as well. And you could see it was a real horse race.

People - and these are important political figures running around with a paper in their hand saying, we're 6,000 votes ahead in Chamchamal. It seemed like someone counting the votes in some county in Florida or Ohio.

HANSEN: NPR Baghdad bureau chief Quil Lawrence. Thank you, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

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