With Iraq leader in Berlin, party struggles at home

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq - As Iraq's president recovers in Germany from a stroke, his political party at home faces a stiff challenge from an emboldened opposition in upcoming elections, with some forecasting a disastrous showing.

The struggles facing Jalal Talabani's bloc, which for decades has held a duopoly on power in the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, could prove instructive for parties across the country.

Many of them, like his bloc, remain dependent on personalities rather than policies, ahead of national elections due in less than a year.

Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has faced increasingly tough competition from a breakaway faction as well as Islamist and Communist groupings in its home base of Sulaimaniyah ahead of the three-province Kurdish region's September 21 parliamentary election.

The PUK has put Talabani front and centre in its campaign - posters plastered across Sulaimaniyah urge voters to cast their ballots for "Mam Jalal", as the president is affectionately known.

But the posters have been competing for space on the city's streets with Goran, a bloc comprised largely of ex-PUK officials, and the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU).

"It will be a very big shock" for the PUK, said Asos Hardi, a Sulaimaniyah-based journalist and analyst.

"It will be a turning point, I believe, for the PUK ... in a bad way."

Hardi said uncertainty over the health of Talabani, who has been receiving treatment in Germany since December following a stroke, has clouded the PUK's future, hurting their base and dissuading undecided voters.

"The problem of the PUK is they don't have" anyone who can fill Talabani's shoes, Hardi said.

"Talabani was the centre of the party, and everyone was committed to listen to him, and to do what he says. But after Talabani, there is no other person who can do that."

Meanwhile, Goran and the KIU insist they are better organised than in 2009, and subsequent national legislative elections the following year, with Goran in particular looking to overtake the PUK in terms of overall seat count for the first time.

Goran, whose name means "Change" in Kurdish, surprised many observers in 2009 when it formed the region's first credible opposition party and won far more seats than expected.

Even Barham Saleh, a senior PUK politician who has held multiple top positions including prime minister of the Kurdish region, acknowledged that his party had underestimated the opposition and now faced a major challenge.

"The absence of Talabani really makes it challenging for us to stay together," he said.

"The PUK has suffered, undeniably so ... Things have to change, and we need to move with the times. If we were to just think that we can just be in business as usual, I think it's a very false assumption."

The PUK's struggle to revive its fortunes without its long-time leader could prove instructive to several of Iraq's major political parties, which more than a decade after the US-led invasion still sport many of the same leaders as they did in 2003.

Policies, meanwhile, get short shrift in Iraqi elections, which increasingly hinge on ethnic, sectarian and tribal loyalties.

"The PUK is going to face their first test in the polls after Talabani's stroke, and I think it will be a reality check to how close they are to their own downfall," a Western diplomat said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"What is clear is that this is the politics of personality, and once the personality is not there, they don't have anybody.

'This is a national characteristic'

Provincial election campaigns across 14 non-Kurdish provinces of Iraq earlier this year, for example, were largely focused on individual candidates' links to their party leaders, with little discussion of what policies they hoped to enact.

Posters across the country placed poll hopefuls alongside national leaders such as Iraq's Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in a bid to capitalise on the latter's popularity.

"This is yet another problem in the Iraqi political mindset - parties do not build political institutions," said Ihsan al-Shammari, a professor of politics at Baghdad University.

"And the people do not focus on party policies, but instead on personalities."