Wednesday, April 30, 2014

April 30: Today is Election Day

Downtown Suly with poster of Jalal Talabani
I know that just a few months ago I posted a story about elections, but that was elections for the Kurdish parliament.  During the local elections last fall, things got a bit ugly, particularly after it was clear that the PUK party (People's Union of Kurdistan) was going to come in third.  Everyone knew that the KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) would garner the most votes, but no one really anticipated that Goran (literally meaning "change") would place second.  At least one person was killed and many injured by stray bullets (some aimed at people, others shot into the air).
Little girl handing out election pamphlets
with her father
Today is election day in all of Iraq to elect members of the Federal Parliament in Baghdad and council members in Kurdistan.  The parties and candidates are given one month to conduct electioneering activities and throughout April, each night has been filled with the sounds of firecrackers and the occasional gunshot, and cars with screaming people waving flags of the various political parties, particularly the PUK.  Two days ago, Kurdistan television showed Jalal Talibani, founder of the PUK and President of Iraq, casting his vote in Germany where he has been since his stroke more than a year ago (publicity no doubt intended to increase support for the PUK in today's elections).  Talabani is beloved by many Kurds, particularly in Sulaimaniya where he is from, and the television story brought on a night of gunfire (why do people celebrate by shooting rifles and other weapons), again with about a dozen injuries from stray bullets.
With Rezan Dler, PUK candidate for Parliament, and Heidi
A senior lawyer from Heartland Alliance International in Iraq is running for Parliament.  I would love her to win because she is a passionate human rights activist, fighting particularly for women, and the Iraqi Parliament needs her.  On the other hand, it will be a great loss to our organization.  Otherwise, the elections look rather grim.  Election rallies and polling places have been the target of terrorist bombings, turnout today has been low so far, and most people believe that the current prime minister, Al Maliki will win a third term and cement even more strongly his power (by law, he is the only one who can introduce legislation -- parliamentarians cannot!).  If you want to read a pretty discouraging piece about where Iraq is today, see David Filkens' story in the New Yorker.  However, Filkens also points out that the picture is more positive for Kurdistan.  In fact, on this election day, there is a very good television piece on whether Kurdistan is democratic, citing evidence that aspects of democracy have taken hold even if much still needs to be done.  The challenge is addressing some of the issues, including a lack of a free press and various human rights abuses, while continuing to keep Kurdistan secure from the violence facing the rest of Iraq.
Saddam Hussein's former headquarters in Sulaimaniya
I announced to my staff this week that I would be stepping down as Country Director later this year, though I will continue on as Technical Advisor to Iraq.  It has been my privilege to live and work here for three years, leading the organization as Iraq Country Director for the last two years, and the decision to step down has been a very difficult one, even though I knew it had to come one day.  I love my staff and am very proud of the work we do here, but I also love my family and want to spend more time with them in the US (even as I travel to Iraq and elsewhere on occasion).  I know I will leave the office in very good hands, with my dear friends and colleagues, Heidi, who will be our new Country Director, and Kak Shwan, our long-time Director of Finance and Administration, supported by all our amazing staff members.   And even after I step down, I look forward to continuing my work not only with the Iraq office of Heartland Alliance International, but also developing legal protection and other programs in other countries. 
Kak Shwan, his wonderful family and
their amazing hospitality
A final word:  my son and his wife open their new store, gather, this Saturday in San Francisco, and I urge everyone who might be in Northern California to go  (and encourage your friends to go) to the grand opening!