Kurdistan Contradicts Itself

From my hotel balcony I can see this city of nearly 700,000 in all its modernity and all its madness. I can see the desiccated mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan encircling us — hills that on my last visit, during the rainy season, were covered in poppies. I can see the Ferris wheel that was built as a symbol of freedom on the ruins of one of Saddam Hussein’s prisons. And I can see 20 armed soldiers watching me from below, making me feel anything but free.

This is Sulaimaniya. I can see mosques around the city and I can hear their calls to prayer. Against all Islamic principles, I can drink mojitos in my hotel lobby and was once invited to watch pornography on the bellboy’s cellphone.

Kurdish politics are just as full of contradictions. Since Iraqi Kurdistan gained de facto independence in 1991, it has been governed by either the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan or the Kurdistan Democratic Party. After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the two formed a coalition, resulting in a government whose corruption and cronyism went unchallenged.

Last Saturday, however, this region went to the polls, and a real opposition emerged: Gorran, whose name means “change.” Gorran came in a respectable second to the ruling coalition with 24 percent of the votes for Parliament seats. But can Gorran, which was formed only three months ago, really be considered a legitimate force for change?

First the good news: Here is a group that hopes to abolish the backroom dealing and autocracy that have long stifled Kurdish politics. During the campaign, Gorran’s candidates called for transparency and accountability, and even claimed they would prosecute corrupt former leaders.

Yet despite all the reformist rhetoric, Gorran is seen by some as an offshoot of the ruling faction. It is headed by Nawshirwan Mustafa, who was formerly a top official in the Patriotic Union. It has taken large donations from former politicians suspected of corruption. And it is rumored to have had backing from the Shiite-led Iraqi central government, which many Kurds insist is bent on destabilizing the region to take control of its oil.

Nonetheless, I have spent enough time with Gorran’s leaders and supporters to believe that they are earnest in wanting to make a difference, and I think they won enough seats in the regional Parliament to do so.

The people of Sulaimaniya also seem to think Gorran is for real; its candidates received about 51 percent of the vote here. On Sunday, supporters celebrated and draped Gorran flags over me wherever I went. But as the regionwide results trickled in — alongside reports of fraud — the mood began to change to one of suspicion and anger, and violence seemed likely.

By the end of the day, at least one person was dead and a dozen injured by gunfire; witnesses claimed that the gunmen were loyalists of Massoud Barzani, who was re-elected on Saturday as regional president. Several Gorran offices were ransacked. At Gorran headquarters, I had to push through bloodied supporters just to get in — they said they had been attacked by local Patriotic Union militia with rifle butts.

Just the other night I saw a Gorran supporter pulled from a car and dragged away, but I also saw people drinking tea in the streetside cafes as they watched the protests die down. The violence consisted of little more than a few thrown water bottles.

A few years ago, something like this would have certainly led to widespread unrest.

Thus it can be seen as a victory of sorts that most Kurds seem to be at home with their families, grumbling perhaps, but more occupied with watching mindless TV than with politics. Among their favorites are “Gardalul,” a campy series about valiant Kurdish militia fighters, and “Kurdstar,” a version of “American Idol” limited to only one genre of music: traditional Kurdish folk songs. While the contestants may not have a real choice, it appears that Iraqi Kurdish voters finally do.

Benjamin Hall, the author of the blog Out of the Ashes.