By Associated Press - Saturday, September 21, 2013

IRBIL, Iraq — Voters in Iraq’s Kurdish north cast ballots Saturday in local parliamentary elections, with smaller parties hoping to challenge the self-rule region’s longtime political establishment.

The election for the Kurdistan Regional Government’s 111-seat legislature comes as Iraq’s Kurds look to bolster their autonomy while insulating their increasingly prosperous enclave from the growing violence roiling the rest of Iraq and neighboring Syria.

Security was tight for the vote. Approaches to the regional capital Irbil and other major cities were closed, and voters were searched before being allowed into polling centers.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and the Kurdistan Democratic Party of regional President Massoud Barzani are looking to maintain their dominance in the face of challenges by smaller parties, including opposition group known as Gorran, or Change, that had a surprisingly strong showing in the last vote in 2009.

The KDP and PUK defend their record in keeping the region safer and more economically successful than much of the rest of Iraq, but the opposition’s charges that they tolerate graft and nepotism strike a chord with some voters.

“We are fed up with the same old politicians who have done little to serve the people. We hope that this election will bring new faces capable of combating corruption,” said Lana Ali, a teacher in the region’s capital Irbil who said she voted for Gorran. “The new lawmakers should bring change. Otherwise we promise to change them four years from now.”

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The region’s prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani of KDP, urged a strong turnout after casting his ballot shortly after polls opened. He called the elections “another act to enhance the democratic process in the Kurdistan region.”

The two dominant parties previously competed on a joint list but are running independently this time around.

The PUK faces a particularly tough challenge in its stronghold of Sulaimaniyah. Party leader Talabani suffered a stroke in December and is recovering in a German hospital. Few details have been released about the severity of his illness.

A senior PUK official, Saadi Peira, expressed optimism about his party’s prospects despite lingering questions over Talabani’s health, saying “we have a good level of popularity among the Kurdish people.”

Safaa al-Moussawi, spokesman for the country’s Independent High Electoral Commission that oversees the balloting, said the turnout would be announced Saturday night while preliminary results will be available within two days.

Whatever the results, the Kurds are likely to continue to push for greater autonomy. The KRG has sparred with Baghdad for years over rights to disputed territories and the management of lucrative oil and gas reserves.

Their region has become a haven for tens of thousands of Kurdish refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war, strengthening the regional government’s role as a champion for Kurds beyond its borders.

“The (regional government) is increasingly becoming a player in regional politics. … So the matter here is not only local elections, but also oil and politics,” said Iraqi political analyst Khadum al-Muqdadi.

A no-fly zone established by the U.S. and Britain in 1991 helped the Kurds carve out an enclave that today is more secure than the rest of Iraq and has been a magnet for foreign investors. The three-province territory was formally recognized as an autonomous region within Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

Unlike in the last election in 2009, voters will not have a chance to cast ballots for the regional president. Lawmakers in June voted to delay presidential elections for two years, allowing Massoud Barzani to remain in office over the objections of some in the opposition.

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