| Nushirwan Mustafa of the Kurdish Gorran (Change) Party has galvanised Kurdish politics [AFP]
Since campaigning officially began on February 12, cities across Iraq's northern Kurdish region have been gripped with election fever.
Posters depicting a number of candidates and officials festoon the streets and lamp posts are strewn with banners and bunting.
The campaigning reaches its apex late at nights, well after the end of office hours, when the streets of Sulaimaniyah (300km north of Baghdad) are ablaze with political fervour.
Cars line up bumper to bumper, honking or blasting political hymns, with passengers waving banners and flags to profess support for one party or another.
Most ethnic Kurds in Iraq's northern region known as "Iraqi Kurdistan" see the national elections on March 7 as less about taking part in Iraq's much-touted democratic process than about safeguarding their own interests and hard-won political gains since the US-led war ousted the Baathist government.
"For Kurds, our members of parliament in Baghdad are more like ambassadors to a foreign country, who work to safeguard our rights and our interests," said Galawizh Ghulam, a freelance journalist in Sulaimaniyah and a supporter of the Kurdistan Alliance, a union of the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
Kurdish region prospered
|In Erbil, a sense of Kurdish identity has become more pronounced since 1991 [GETTY]
Following Baghdad's defeat after the invasion of Kuwait in 1991, Britain, France and the US enforced a 'no-fly zone' above the 36th parallel to protect Kurds from the Iraqi army which was determined to quell an uprising.
Since then, a semi-autonomous region in the north of Iraq has largely prospered and has allowed an entire generation of Iraqi Kurds to come of age neither speaking Arabic nor feeling any sense of belonging to the Republic of Iraq.
While aspirations for statehood are now largely considered a dream, and Kurdish officials insist that they are not pursuing full fledged independence, the upcoming elections will determine the level of clout the Kurdish political blocs will wield in Baghdad over disputed territories, the hydrocarbons law, and federalism.
Equally important is the fate of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which aims to reverse the Arabisation policy employed by the Saddam Hussein government – a policy that culminated in the 1980s Anfal campaign in which over 100,000 Iraqi Kurds were killed.
In fact, the implementation of Article 140 – believed to be a road map for resolving the issue of disputed territories, notably Kirkuk – has repeatedly been delayed by the interference of Iraq's neighbours.
Turkey and most Arab countries view the inclusion of Kirkuk in the Kurdish region as a precursor to independence, though Kurdish leaders have repeatedly said they are not moving to secession.
In recent years, however, the growing political and economic relationship between Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has begun to allay these fears somewhat.
"We don't have reasons for separation in mind. Our survival depends on the degree of our togetherness. We in the Kurdistan region are committed to the constitution along with retaining our particularities as a federal entity," says Shorish Ismaeel, the head of the PUK's Election Bureau.
Hopes for economic self-determination have also faced numerous obstacles, chiefly whether Kurdish authorities retain the right to sign oil and gas contracts and what percentage of profits the Baghdad government should receive.
One point of contention involves distribution of oil revenues. The constitution is ambiguous on this issue, merely stipulating that undeveloped fields are the responsibility of the regions where they lie. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has seized on this apparent loophole to justify signing oil contracts - independent of Baghdad - with global energy companies.
In recent weeks, however, Barham Salih, the prime minister of the KRG, has managed to broker a temporary compromise between Baghdad and Erbil allowing oil to flow from the Kurdish oil fields through the pipeline to Turkey.
Change Kurds believe in
Complicating matters for the Kurdish constituency is the emergence of a bona fide Iraqi Kurdish opposition group, the Gorran (Change) Party, which banked on general popular discontent with poor public services and allegations of endemic corruption to garner 23.75 per cent of votes in last summer's provincial elections.
Even those who claimed that they voted for one of the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties – either PUK or the KDP – admitted at the time that they admired the new party's refreshing campaign.
Although Gorran is not yet officially a party, its self-styled image as a "movement for change" has made it the most successful slate after the PUK-KDP coalition.
Their platform for the 2009 election was to de-politicise the regional government, strengthen the judiciary, limit political interference in the economy and make the budget more transparent.
|Kurds have been inspired by Gorran's approach to local politics [AFP]
The emergence of Gorran – essentially a PUK splinter group – ushered fundamental changes to the Iraqi Kurdish political arena, and compelled the KDP and PUK to improve the services offered to the people.
The Kurdish parliament recently voted to decrease the salaries of ministers and increase the monthly stipends for families of people killed by the Iraqi army.
While this palpable spirit of openness and democracy has been welcomed across the board in Iraq's Kurdish region, Gorran's decision to go it alone in the upcoming national elections rather than join the Kurdistan Alliance has been received with harsh criticism.
There are concerns that competing in the national elections in fragments will weaken their heretofore powerful position in Baghdad.
Soz Abdulqadir Abdulrahman Baban, a candidate for Gorran in Sulaimaniyah province, says that having multiple Kurdish political coalition lists in Baghdad will actually strengthen their position, because it is reflection of the will of the Kurdish people.
Gorran's leadership are confident that they will do well in the elections, with some analysts predicting they may pick up as many as 15 seats outside of the Kurdish provinces.
Nevertheless, this has cast a shadow on Kurdish representation as one unified bloc in Baghdad.
During the last four years, senior Kurdish officials have enjoyed the unusual position of holding power in Baghdad; it may be argued that they took advantage of Arab disunity (Shia-Sunni tensions) and manoeuvred to profit from Iraq's new constitution with the concept of federalism at its heart.
Yet, with a significant Sunni Arab participation in these elections, Kurdish leaders may no longer be the king-makers. If the Kurds fail to present a united front in Baghdad, then a putative Shia-Sunni alliance could emerge that might diminish the power of the KRG and weaken federalism in Iraq.
Ismaeel acknowledges the intricacies of politics in Baghdad but stresses upon the need to "serve the nation".
"In democracy, one has the right to [hold different opinions than] the mainstream, and this must be respected. If you wish to be on your own, you are free, but you must remember that you are serving a nation and this nation has some common issues you must respect and work for," he says.
"We as the Kurdish coalition are open to new members, but still respect all who don't follow our approach."
In a bid to allay their constituents' concerns, all of the Kurdish lists have promised to vote as a united bloc on issues of importance for their region.
"In my view the Kurds will unify in Baghdad and co-operate on the vital issues affecting our nation," says Ismaeel.
Presidency at stake
|Talabani has said he will not seek re-election but may cave in to constituent pressure [AFP]
However, the inability of the Kurds to unite against perceived external threats has always been their Achilles heel.
In 1996, the KDP's head, Massoud Barzani, called for assistance from Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi army, to rout his rival at the time, PUK head Jalal Talabani.
The two parties have largely patched their differences but a level of tension remains.
Indeed, internal divisions may cost Kurds critical positions of power in Baghdad, the most symbolic of these being the presidency.
Although Talabani has said he will not seek a re-election bid, Kurdish media have speculated that he is unlikely to refuse if asked by the Kurdish Alliance to retain the presidency.
But Gorran has not indicated whether it would back Talabani as president.
According to Shkow Sharif, an Iraqi Kurdish political observer, Gorran's influence seems to be centralised to PUK-controlled areas. He says Gorran would effectively be taking over PUK seats in Baghdad rather than KDP ones, thus eating into the 50:50 agreements between the KDP and PUK.
"It is also difficult to say whether Jalal Talabani will serve a second term as Iraqi President as this will most likely be down to KDP discretion," Sharif said.
"Is it better to keep Talabani, an internationally respected figure, in the presidency or should [Iraqi Kurdistan Region President and KDP leader] Massoud Barzani use his position of power to quell internal opposition by giving reformist Nechirvan Barzani the presidency?"
From the perspective of Kurdish voters, the political process in the northern region has been given a shot in the arm.
Still reeling from the Gorran bite in last summer's elections, the Kurdistan Alliance appear, this time around, to have selected more 'technocrat' candidates in a bid to appeal to a broader spectrum of voters, including the Arab, Christian and Turkmen populations in disputed areas.