In addition to the fierce competition between the four ethnic components in Kirkuk, there is an emerging competition, for the first time ever, between two Kurdish lists: the Kurdistan list, composed of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Change list headed by Nawshirwan Mustafa.
Even as the Iraqi parliament continues to debate how elections will unfold in Kirkuk – if at all – on the back of ethnic tensions and competition between Erbil and Baghdad for control of the province, political parties have started campaigning, in the expectation that elections will occur in January.
Observers believe that competition began in Kirkuk following the visit of Jalal Talabani, Iraqi President and PUK secretary-general, to the city in September 2009. Following the visit, the Change list accused Talabani of donating funds and cars and of using illegal and secret methods to convince Kurds and other groups to vote for his list.
Rizkar Ali, the province’s council chairman and a PUK member, has strongly denied these accusations. He told Niqash that “Talabani’s visit did not aim at promoting an electoral program as it is not the first time that he has visited Kirkuk and donated money to helping those in need and those suffering losses from among the Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and Kurds.”
In previous years, Kirkuk was one of the major areas controlled by the PUK. But, July’s parliamentary elections in the Kurdistan Region and the success of the Change List have changed the political equation.
Observers expect the Change list to secure a strong foothold in the province having obtained 25 percent of votes in July’s elections, establishing a strong opposition voice in the Kurdistan region. Against all odds the Change List even succeeded in challenging the PUK in its traditional stronghold of Sulaimaniyah province.
Kurdish newspapers close to the PUK have expressed fears that leading members from the two major Kurdish parties, including the country’s vice president, might even lose their seats if the Change List can maintain its strong showing.
Commenting on these fears, Mam Rustom, an old Peshmerga officer and a leading personality in the Change list told Niqash that “the list will win over and crush its competitors in Kirkuk.”
The Change list says it is currently strengthening its support base and is communicating with the different local communities in a bid to spread its reform agenda.
Rustom stressed that there is “a popular trust in the list because Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen are not happy with the current state of affairs.” He added that “the KDP and the PUK have not been able to win peoples’ support during the last six years.”
According to unofficial estimates, Kirkuk’s population is more than one million, composed of four major ethnic and religious groups: the Kurds, the Arabs, the Turkmen and the Christians.
During The last 50 years, there has been a long and bitter conflict between the Kurds and the central Iraqi government over the demographic nature of the city. However, the Kurds still believe that they form the majority.
With the fall of the Baath regime in 2003, Kirkuk, according to the Iraqi Constitution, was considered a "disputed area." The two major Kurdish parties gained control of the city, winning 29 seats out of the 41 provincial council seats. The Turkmen won nine seats and the Arabs six seats.
Now, as the conflict between Erbil and Baghdad over the long-term status of the province grows ever more heated, forthcoming elections have assumed great importance.
The PUK is depending on national affiliations and the painful historical memories of the Baath regime’s era in Kirkuk in an attempt to prolong its dominance in the province. By highlighting its history of struggle and the firm stance it has always taken regarding Kurdish identity, it is hoping to once more rally popular support.
President Talabani has repeatedly said that Kirkuk is a "redline", describing it as the “Kurdish Jerusalem.” In the proposed constitution of the Kurdistan region, recently put forward by the PUK-KDP regional government, Kirkuk was called the capital city of the Kurdish region.
“Everybody knows that we are the defenders of Kirkuk’s Kurdish nature,” Rizkar Ali, a PUK official told Niqash.
Accordingly, Ali played down the political threat from the Change List, stating that the struggle over the city’s identity would ensure continued popular support for the Kurdistan list. “The Kurdish nature of Kirkuk is the first and most important issue for us,” he said.
“The interests of the Kurdish people in disputed areas require all Kurds to join one list because this is the wise thing to do and the only way to serve the interests of the Kurds,” said Ali, warning against the existence of competing Kurdish lists, saying it might weaken their position vis-à-vis Baghdad.
However, the Change list say that only a reformed Kurdish political establishment can ensure Kurdish rights and have promised to push forward with their challenge against the Kurdistan list.
“This phenomenon will best serve the Kurds and their interests and will make us strong rather than weak,” said Rustom.