Campaigning began in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan on Tuesday for parliamentary elections that Kurds hope will help end months of turmoil, a year after the region of six million made a failed bid to break away from the rest of the country.
The mood was unusually subdued across the region as the two dynastic parties which dominate Kurdish politics held rallies in their respective strongholds in an attempt to whip up support for the Sept. 30 vote.
Massoud Barzani, who last year stepped down from the region's presidency but maintains a respected position within his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), addressed a crowd in Erbil, the region's capital. Meanwhile, leaders of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) gathered in Sulaimaniya province.
Iraqi Kurds will go to the polls to elect members of parliament for their region, which gained self-rule in 1991. Hundreds of candidates are vying for seats in the 111-seat house. The current parliament was elected in 2013.
The start of campaigning had been delayed by a week, as Kurdish political parties debated delaying the regional vote over stalled negotiations in Baghdad.
A federal election in May, which included Kurdish provinces, was inconclusive and no government has yet been formed. Kurds have traditionally fielded a candidate for the federal presidency.
Kurds, who had enjoyed unprecedented autonomy for years, voted overwhelmingly for independence in the 2017 plebiscite, which was opposed by Baghdad and Iraq's neighbouring countries, Turkey, Iran and Western powers.
The vote prompted military and economic retaliation from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad, which took punitive measures to stamp out the region's independence aspirations, plunging the region into further economic and political turmoil.
Relations between Kurdish regional and central Iraqi authorities have since improved, but negotiations have stalled over oil exports and revenue-sharing.
"Had not it been for the KDP, Erbil would be ruled by others," Barzani told the rally in Erbil, in a reference to territories lost to federal Iraqi forces following the referendum. "To have a strong Kurdistan we need a strong KDP."
Opposition parties have expressed concern for months that turnout would be affected by fallout from May's national election which was marred by allegations of fraud in Kurdish areas. At least one opposition party was boycotting the election.