RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Voters in Iraq's three Kurdish regions went to the polls yesterday to elect a new regional parliament. This part of Iraq has been semi-autonomous since the U.S. led a no-fly zone there in the 1990s to protect the Kurds from former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
NPR's Jane Arraf joins us now from the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. Jane, I understand there are no official results yet, but any indication as to what a new Kurdish parliament could look like?
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Well, for the most part, Rachel, it's going to be the status quo. You know, there are two main parties here that have existed for decades, and they will continue their control. But the interesting thing is there are opposition parties, including one that didn't even exist in the last elections five years ago. It's aimed at young people. And it looks like that party at least will do well. Here's an election observer named Shadman Barzanji from the opposition Gorran party, an older party, explaining why he thought voters were rejecting those traditional parties.
SHADMAN BARZANJI: The democracy is not just on a paper. You have to be implemented in reality. But unfortunately, the sitting party uses democracy to make things look good for outsiders. But inside, it's not so much democracy.
ARRAF: And by that he means that he and a lot of the voters I talked to, frankly, are frustrated over the lack of opportunity - the fact that the parties control a lot of the jobs, lack of freedom for people not connected with those big parties.
MARTIN: So what does that mean? Do people - was turnout good as a result of this frustration? You were at polling stations, right?
ARRAF: Yeah. That was a really interesting thing because we went early in the morning, and we stayed, and we did not see a lot of people. But the results that they're citing are actually pretty high. One of the big fears has always been fears of fraud. There were allegations of widespread fraud in federal elections here in May. In fact, one of the party headquarters was attacked after. So one of the biggest parties, the PUK, immediately said it was rejecting all the results, but then they rescinded that.
So here's one of the problems. Media were only allowed in a very few polling stations. We got in one - one of the approved polling stations. And we were able to watch them start to count some of the ballots. So there's an election official taking out each paper ballot because they decided not to do the automated ballot counting because they think that leads to fraud. And he's reading out the names of each party. It's a very laborious process.
ARRAF: So even at this approved polling station which you'd think would be, like, super squeaky clean there were people try and get in with fake IDs. But really the question is whether the violations are serious enough to put the results in question.
MARTIN: Right. So, I mean, we've heard for generations how the Kurds have been wanting their own state, right? So there's an innate tension between the Kurdish regional government and the central government in Baghdad. So what - how could the new government in essentially Kurdistan affect the relationship with Baghdad?
ARRAF: Absolutely. You've hit the nail on the head because they had a referendum last year saying, do you want independence, and the vast majority of Kurds said yes. So the U.S. says of course that it warned them not to hold this, and there were serious repercussions after that. The Iraqi government sent in tanks. So they're going to have to repair relations with Baghdad and a lot of other things on their plate as well - the economy. So it's all quite up in the air. But, yeah, a lot of challenges ahead for whatever emerges from this new government in the next couple of days.
MARTIN: NPR's Jane Arraf in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah - thanks so much, Jane. We appreciate it.
ARRAF: Thank you.
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