Kurds voted in a parliamentary election in their semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq on Sunday, with political dynasties expected to extend their power sharing rule despite growing discontent with perceived corruption and economic hardship.
The vote comes a year after the region of six million, which gained semi-autonomous status after the 1991 Gulf War, made a failed bid to break away from the rest of Iraq in a campaign headed by Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
Barzani has retained a support base even though his independence drive prompted an intense backlash from the Baghdad government and resulted in the Kurds being stripped of some territory and economic autonomy.
And while criticism of the ruling Kurdish establishment – dominated for decades by the Barzani and the Talabani families – has grown more vocal, a weak opposition means voters may stick to the status quo.
“I don’t know who I will vote for but our family has always supported the KDP. My son will pick a candidate for me,” said Halima Ahmed, 65, as she walked with a cane in the city of Erbil, the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Splits within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) mean the KDP could gain the upper hand in their two-party ruling coalition.
At midday, the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission said that at mid-day turnout ranged between 16-23 percent in a breakdown of provinces.
The number of voters has shrunk in recent elections as the oil-producing region’s stagnant politics, unpaid public sector salaries and corruption have undermined the population’s faith in politics.
Polls are scheduled to close at 6 p.m. (1500 GMT). Preliminary results are expected within 72 hours. There are 111-seats up for grabs in the election, including 11 reserved for ethnic minorities.
Kurdish opposition parties did poorly when Iraq held federal elections in May. But multiple allegations that the KDP and PUK had committed election fraud – not confirmed in a subsequent recount – may sway some voters in their favour.
Gorran, the main opposition movement, has been weakened by infighting and the death of its founder and leader Nechirvan Mustafa last year.
“I wanted to make sure I voted early. I gave my vote to Gorran and hope for the best,” said Omar Mahmoud Abdullah, 52, at the polling station set up at Shireen School in Sulaimaniya, stronghold of the PUK.
At another polling station in Sulaimaniya, lawyer Hassan Dalloush, 65, also said he was voting for the opposition.
“If there’s no fraud in this election, I’ll feel good about it. But the parties in power always want to commit fraud, it’s the only way they stay in power,” he said.
“I will never vote for the parties in power. Today I voted for the opposition.”
The referendum in September 2017 promised to set Iraq’s Kurds on a path to a homeland and nearly 93 percent voted in favour of independence, despite pressure from the central government in Baghdad and threats from neighbouring Turkey and Iran.
A swift backlash from Baghdad dashed those prospects. Relations with the central government have improved, but the ordeal cost the Kurdish region territory as well as economic autonomy.
Nevertheless, some voters showed optimism about the future. Salar Karim arrived at a polling station with his wife and two young children, all dressed festively for the occasion.
“Today is a historic day for Kurds,” Karim, 50, said. “We get to elect our parliament as is our duty. I feel good about today.”