Kurds put up united front, but cracks are showing

Protected from the violence in the rest of the country by efficient intelligence and 80,000 militiamen, the party faithful in Iraq's Kurdish northeast drive through city streets blaring horns and waving election banners.

Photos of hopeful candidates are everywhere: on lamp posts, cars, and - illegally - on the walls of government offices.

Never paragons of objectivity, party-sponsored radio and television stations have given themselves over almost entirely to propaganda. 'Dear uncle Jelal, dear uncle Jelal,' booms a singer, referring to one party leader.

'Today is the day, today is Kurdistan's day,' sings another.

It is a sentiment that sums up well the attitudes of the vast majority of Kurds. At odds with Baghdad since the founding of Iraq, and treated with increasing brutality by successive governments, they know today's elections are crucial to the defence of the autonomy they have enjoyed since 1991.

'The parliament Iraqis elect will have until August 15 to draft Iraq's new constitution,' explained Noshirwan Mustafa, founder of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, one of the two largest Kurdish parties. 'We must be united, and we must be there in numbers.'

The Kurds, he added, would not accept anything less than a 'democratic, pluralistic, parliamentary system in Iraq' and the inclusion of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk within the Kurdish federal region.

Ordinary Kurds agree. Many describe their parliamentary vote as a patriotic obligation. But the fervour comes to an abrupt halt when talk turns to the other votes Kurds are expected to cast this weekend. Like other Iraqis, they will also be choosing candidates for new provincial councils. Unlike the rest of the country, they are also expected to elect 111 deputies to Kurdistan's regional government in Erbil.

'One hundred per cent of Kurds will vote for the Baghdad parliament, but I don't think more than 20 per cent will bother with the Kurdistan elections,' said Sulaimaniyah taxi driver Bakhtiar Omar.

This comparative lack of interest in political developments on home turf has several explanations.

There were municipal elections throughout Kurdish-controlled areas in 2000 and 2001, and many Kurds complain they changed nothing.

But the greatest cause of cynicism - particularly among educated and younger Kurds - is the decision of the two largest parties, plus half a dozen smaller ones, to run for the Kurdistan elections on a joint ticket. 'Democracy is about pluralism,' says Amina Mahmud, lawyer and election monitor. 'If Islamists and communists, socialists and nationalists can all gang up together, where's the pluralism gone?'