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IRAQ: Interview with Kurdish candidate Barham Salih, deputy prime minister

July 24, 2009 | 12:41 pm

BarhamSalih The Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who have jointly ruled Kurdistan for the last 18 years, are facing the first real political challenge to their monopoly on power in Saturday's regional government elections. A newly formed opposition movement called Change has galvanized Kurds frustrated with high levels of corruption and poor services, and hopes to win a sizable number of seats.

On the eve of the poll, the Los Angeles Times sat down with the PUK's Barham Salih, Iraq's deputy prime minister, who heads a joint PUK-KDP list of candidates known as the Kurdistani list. If the list wins, it is likely he will become the region's next prime minister. Here are some excerpts from the interview:

Q: You're facing a big challenge from the Change movement. Are you worried?

A: For parties who have been in power for 18 years, one has to expect that there will be big challenges. People have certain questions, legitimate questions. There is opposition that is trying to ride a wave of discontent, displeasure with some of the shortcomings of the situation. So it is definitely a challenge.

But I think we have conducted a very good campaign. We have managed to convey a message that what we have achieved so far is impressive … and that the platform we have adopted is a reformist platform that will take care of the shortcomings and some of the problems that we encountered.

The most important thing is that the process is competitive and proves the maturity of the Kurdish democratic process. I am very hopeful that this will have implications for Kurdish politics, for Iraqi politics and will establish pluralistic democracy in a far more profound way than we have seen in the past.

Q: You admit that there have been shortcomings in the performance of the current government. What are they?

A: The context is very important. In 1991 we assumed the administration of this region and Kurdistan was nothing but a total wasteland.  4,500 villages were destroyed, so many towns and communities were totally devastated, we were surrounded by powerful neighbors who never wanted us to move on. And unfortunately, we had the civil war between the KDP and the PUK. Despite all those odds, if you compare where we were 18 years ago in every sphere of life, there's been impressive, significant progress.

But this is not without shortcomings. I think this region needs better services, we need more open government, we need to counter corruption more effectively, we definitely need our parliament to be more active in terms of its monitoring role and as a balance to the executive.

These are serious challenges but I think both the PUK and the KDP have acknowledged these shortcomings and have submitted to a specific, very practical plan.

What is different between us and some of the others who are utilizing democracy and riding a wave of public discontent is that we have offered a very realistic reform agenda.  We definitely acknowledge that there is a serious problem of corruption that needs to be addressed seriously.

Q: What implications will the election have on Kurdistan's strained relationship with Baghdad?

A: In terms of relationships with Baghdad, the impact should not be overestimated. This election is a turning point in Kurdish political dynamics and Kurdish politics are becoming more competitive and more focused on domestic issues – services, quality of life, corruption, as opposed to the larger issues of Kurdish nationalism. These issues remain important, such as the fate of Kirkuk, the fate of the relationship with Baghdad. But I do not see that there is much dissent on what I see as the mainstream Kurdish position on these issues.

Q: Change has accused you of not doing enough to push for talks with Baghdad and has said it would press harder for negotiations over Kurdish concerns such as the fate of Kirkuk.

A: I hope that is their genuine position. I have been denounced by some of these people for being too flexible, too easy with Baghdad. When they speak in English they come across as moderates, but when they speak in Kurdish to their constituents they seem to be ultra-nationalists.  I hope that we all will be adopting a moderate tone, a logical tone. 

Q: How well do you think the opposition will do?

A: I'm not going to make any predictions. The only thing I can say is that … contrary to predictions that the two main parties would not allow any dissent, this has been a competitive race, an open race, and I'm proud of the race that we've conducted.

Q: Will you become the next prime minister of Kurdistan?
A: I am a mere candidate. I don't take anything for granted.

-- Liz Sly in Sulaimaniya

Photo: Iraq's Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, who heads the Kurdistani list in Saturday's regional elections in Kurdistan. Credit: Asso Ahmed.