Like most Kurdish men, 35-year-old Salih Mustafa served in the Peshmerga, the Kurdish fighting force, during the struggle against former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime. Since then, he says, not much has changed.
"I have talked to many Arabs who have come here from Baghdad, and they have told me that when Saddam left Iraq, hundreds of Saddams replaced him," resident Abdullah Aziz agreed, to a wave of approving nods from a group of men.
As the countdown continues to Iraq’s general elections, scheduled for April 30, Kurdish voters appear largely pessimistic that the forthcoming vote will change the status quo. Many argue the disconnect that characterised the relationship between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurds under Saddam’s rule is still felt in the streets of Erbil today.
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"Kurds feel the constitution has not been implemented, their identity has not been recognised and the characteristics of the region [have] not been taken into consideration," the head of Kurdistan’s Department of Foreign Relations, Falah Mustafa, told Al Jazeera.
Salih Mustafa plans to vote for the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), one of four Kurdish parties contesting this year’s elections. Senior party officials estimate the KDP will receive more than one million votes, an increase from the 925,000 it gained in 2010.
When Kurds don’t feel that they are partners in the decision-making process, when they don’t feel that they have a share in that power sharing system, what else would connect the Kurds to Baghdad?
If this occurs, it would likely place the KDP first among the other Kurdish political forces. KDP statistics predict that its rival group, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, will secure around 600,000 votes, while Gorran (Kurdish Change Movement) will get 550,000 and the Islamic Union of Kurdistan 185,000. The PUK has stated publicly that it anticipates receiving more than 600,000 votes, while Gorran has not released predictions.
Unlike in previous elections, the PUK and the KDP will run as separate entities rather that on a joint slate, as the two parties have been locked in a complex political feud. The KDP has taken control of the Peshmerga and the interior ministry, a move viewed as a blow to PUK domination.
Despite these divisions, Kurdish parties are united over a range of other issues, including relations with the federal government, oil exportation, a more equal distribution of the federal budget, and Article 140 of Iraq's constitution, which calls to scrap Saddam Hussein’s Arabisation process in Kirkuk.
Kurdish forces also maintain a united front against the re-election of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose State of Law coalition is widely expected to emerge victorious in the forthcoming elections due to the absence of a united opposition. Al-Maliki’s two major rival blocs are undergoing transformation: the leader of the Sadrists bloc, Muqtada al-Sadr, retired from politics in February while Iyad Allawi’s al-Iraqiya bloc has been fractured.
The Iraqi premier may seek to win Arab votes by playing on the dispute between the federal government and the Kurdistan Region Government (KRG), said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Middle East analyst at the Jamestown Foundation: "It is a strategy to get votes from the Arab population by saying that the KRG wants to prevent Iraq from being strong. It’s a long-time strategy of Maliki’s."
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The KRG employed similarly dubious methods ahead of elections. On April 6, in an interview with the London-based al-Hayat newspaper, KRG President Masoud Barzani likened Baghdad’s decision to block Erbil’s share of the annual budget to that of Saddam’s 1988 chemical attack on Halabja that left 5,000 dead.
If al-Maliki were to remain in power, tensions between Baghdad and the KRG would likely grow. Barzani recently threatened in a television interview that "now is the best moment to declare independence", but sceptical Kurds have suggested this is merely a campaigning strategy.
"This card has been played at least a couple of times in the last few years, all during election campaigning periods. Usually right after the elections the call is dropped and no-one brings up independence," said Meer Ako Ali, a journalist from Sulaymaniyah.
Kurdish journalist Kamal Chomani echoed that view: "Barzani’s call for independence is a campaigning tool… independence discourse should not be reactionary, it should be strategic."
While most Kurdish citizens have a strong opinion on Baghdad, they have also distanced themselves from a reality that is no longer their own. Their government appears to be heading down the same road. "When Kurds don’t feel that they are partners in the decision-making process, when they don’t feel that they have a share in that power-sharing system, what else would connect the Kurds to Baghdad?" asked Falah Mustafa.
The stagnant political arena has undoubtedly resulted in widespread disillusion, mostly felt among Kurds.
"I don’t believe in elections in Iraq, in the Kurdistan Region or even in the Middle East because there is no democracy," said 37-year-old shoe shop owner Shamsaddin.
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