Opposition Claims Gains In Self-Ruled Kurdish Region

Preliminary results from the elections held in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq over the weekend defied conventional wisdom. A movement calling itself "Change," which also borrowed the "yes we can" slogan from the Obama campaign, made a surprisingly strong showing. The reshuffling of Kurdish politics may have a ripple effect in Baghdad and beyond.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Votes are being counted in Kurdistan, a semiautonomous region of northern Iraq. Preliminary results from elections held over the weekend defied conventional wisdom. A movement calling itself Change made a surprisingly strong showing. The reshuffling of Kurdish politics may have a ripple effect in Baghdad and beyond. With us to discuss the elections is NPR's bureau chief in Baghdad, Quil Lawrence.

Quil, I know these results are preliminary, but is it already being called an upset?

QUIL LAWRENCE: Oh, absolutely. A shock to most people in the north of Iraq and Kurdistan. People were predicting that this Change movement might get five seats. Some of the established parties were allowing that maybe they would get 12. And it's looking like they got at least 25, which means they'll - they probably won't be able to form the government - the new parliament. The traditional parties will still do that. But they'll definitely be able to cause trouble, become a real opposition, and influence some of the choice of ministers up there.

WERTHEIMER: Well, now the two main parties that you're saying will probably still form the government, they had a lock in politics for decades. How did they lose their hold?

LAWRENCE: Well, like you say, these two main parties up there they were guerilla leaders for decades. They then monopolized politics. But I think if you ask anyone across Kurdistan, across the north of Iraq, they would just say corruption and complacency.

They were sick of seeing the same names and faces. They were sick of hearing tales of businessmen who had to go into partnership with someone from the government if they wanted to get ahead. There was a lot of discontent. And even some of the established parties admitted that, that maybe they'd been taking votes for granted.

The leader of the Change List, Noshirvan Mustafa, is himself an old guerilla fighter. He'd been sort of inside maneuvering for years. And he told me that this was huge for him.

Mr. NOSHIRVAN MUSTAFA (Leader, Change List): But we don't like to Change just the faces and the persons. We want to change the political system. We want to separate the political parties from the public life. It will be the most important achievement in my life.

LAWRENCE: Now, Noshirvan Mustafa is 65 years old. He's hardly a fresh face in Kurdish politics. But he does seem to have opened it up for the future that people who aren't associated with these two traditional parties might care to run.

WERTHEIMER: So how does what happened in Kurdistan compare to the election held in the rest of Iraq earlier in the year?

LAWRENCE: Well, that's a very important question, because Iraq had what were considered successful free and fair elections back in January. And this part of the country, the Kurdistan region, had not. And it was looking a lot less democratic than the rest of Iraq. This election had a huge turnout and they're going to now be able to say that our representatives in Baghdad are just as democratically elected.

The other interesting issue is that this election might've been the first sort of post-conflict election here in Iraq, where people weren't voting just on issues of security and sort of huddling around their sectarian or ethnic leaders to protect them from violence. This was more of an open political process where people they kind of dared to take a risk, because maybe they aren't so afraid about security issues.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Quil.

LAWRENCE: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: We've been speaking with our Baghdad bureau chief, Quil Lawrence. He's also the author of a book about the Iraqi Kurds. It's called "Invisible Nation."

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