Voting is over, and much sooner than expected results are coming in. Varying reports have reached us but it seems as if ‘Change’ has indeed become a serious political player. In this city, now their stronghold, they have taken the lead from the incumbents. Car horns blared throughout the night and will continue to do so for some time. Throughout the rest of Kuridstan the party have come second, and this also is a great victory. Today we met some beaten and bloodied supporters who claim to have been attacked by Kurdistani forces. We have seen some stand offs between factions and we have tracked down stories of election fraud.
Kak Nashirwan, leader of ‘Change’ was also a founder of the opposing PUK. While still a member of PUK, President Talabani gifted him an imposing hill in the centre of town and $10 million. It can be seen from everywhere and on it he was supposed to build the headquarters of his large media empire. Instead he announced his split with the party, fortified the hill and began campaigning under a new manifesto - that of transparency and an end to corruption. To do so was indeed brave and there is no doubt he is a clever man to have pulled together an opposition here without arousing suspicion, and while converting high ranking colleagues.
Today we visited his 'fortress' and at the gate told them our translator’s brother was a party member (he isn’t). Having persuaded them we had an appointment we were allowed in. The road snakes up and up to the very top; lined with guards and offices it is an imposing place. The feeling inside was electric – hundreds of people were milling around, security was intense but the joy could not be contained. We succeeded in getting an interview with the party’s head of foreign relations, who coincidentally had held the same job in the PUK some years earlier. We had to force our way through the throng to reach his office.
He was delighted by the results but he also had many issues with the election. He told us that 1000 people had been ‘purged’ for switching parties and that many people had been threatened with losing their state pensions. Most worrying, he said that the PUK has moved its militia into the city and it is they who will cause any trouble that lies ahead. He also told us that voting hours had been increased to force people in, and that many people who hadn’t voted had their ballots filled in for them.
During the interview some other officials joined us. We had managed to find ourselves in a room with the ex Kurdish Prime minister and the ex interior minister. Both of them are hugely wealthy and had partly bankrolled the campaign. I asked what safeguards were in place to avoid them becoming another corrupt party, and to be honest I didn’t get a great answer, something about following the constitution. The only problem is that so many people are ex PUK with corrupt backgrounds, that there is no way of telling yet whether this movement too will falter.
I also asked about American support for the Party. I was told that while America had not said anything publicly yet they had been in regular contact and that now they had won a serious voice they would be given backing and advice. I was told also that the Prime Minister of Iraq; Al Maliki would soon be voicing his support - we will wait for that. The central government thought does not want a unified Kurdistan, neither do surrounding countries, so perhaps this is their way of splintering the region’s political power. America however does want to show democratic changes so they can pat themselves on the back and push for troop withdrawals in the South.
As we left we came across a man covered in blood and bandages. He had been in prison all night having been beaten with rifle butts for celebrating. Tonight we will eat by the café where it happened and where more demonstrations are expected.
This morning we interviewed a local head of the PUK. He was the first person in a position of power who has acknowledged to me that there are problems with his party – when pushed though he would not elaborate. Part of me thinks that he also supported Change, and indeed as I sat there he was brought the preliminary results straight from Baghdad. His only response was a shrug of resignation.