At 9 p.m., some four hours after polls closed in Kirkuk on March 7, the sky outside my window starts to echo with fireworks and celebratory gunfire. I am staying in a mixed neighborhood in the center of town, and here both Kurds and some Turkomans have plenty of reason to celebrate. Although results are preliminary, at least one local Turkoman candidate appears assured of a seat in Baghdad's parliament. The Kurds have their eyes on a much bigger prize: seven to eight seats and the political heft these bring in shaping Kirkuk's future. While the results are not yet known, whatever happens these elections are unlikely to significantly advance the Kurds' chances to integrate Kirkuk into the Kurdistan region.
In the public eye, every election in Kirkuk turns into a census and quasi-referendum rolled into one. This is because the ethnic communities here assume that Arabs, Kurds and Turkomans vote for their own candidates; that this shows the respective communities' sizes; that the vast majority of Kurds want Kirkuk to be attached to the Kurdistan region; and that these factors combined suggest the probable outcome of a future referendum on Kirkuk's status.
If the Kurdish parties gain eight of Kirkuk's twelve parliamentary seats, as many predict they will, they would cross what they consider the magical threshold of a two-thirds super majority that, in their view, psychologically at least, would clinch their claim to Kirkuk as an inalienable part of Kurdistan. They would await a formal census, now scheduled for October, and use their explicitly acknowledged political weight in Kirkuk to press for a status plebiscite.
Not so fast, Arabs and Turkomans say. They challenge the legitimacy of the voter rolls that produced this Kurdish majority by using a provision in the electoral law that mandates, if a simple majority in parliament requests it, an investigation of the voter registry in governorates such as Kirkuk that have seen an unusually large annual population growth. As long as this scrutiny is underway - the law says it should be completed within a year but Kirkuk has a history of parliamentary investigations running on endlessly and aimlessly - the contested registry cannot be used as the basis for future elections or as a precedent for Kirkuk's political or administrative status. In other words, the Kurds may have advanced only ever-so-slightly in untying the Gordian knot that the Kirkuk question has become since 2003.
Moreover, matters are complicated by intra-Kurdish divisions. Some of the heaviest campaigning in Kirkuk was not between Arabs and Kurds but intra-Kurdish: between the Kurdistani Coalition which combines the two Kurdish principal parties - the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan - and the upstart Goran, or Change, movement. Goran's strong showing in the Kurdistan regional elections last July was a dire warning to the ruling parties, especially the PUK, the party from which Goran's frustrated would-be reformers sprang last year. Today, when no open campaigning was allowed, the PUK and KDP went all-out in their bid to outpace their rival. Cars bearing KDP and PUK flags and blaring their horns crisscrossed Kurdish neighborhoods as if the campaign was still in full swing. Men beat drums; in some areas, women - decked out in their most colourful finery - danced to the beat.
Some Goran candidates may not be following the main parties', and possibly their own leadership's, line on Kirkuk. For five futile years, the KDP and PUK have insisted that the only way to resolve Kirkuk's status is by a referendum based on an ethnic vote. They have loaded the outcome through their control of local government, which allowed them to change the governorate's demography in their favor. That outcome, therefore, is unlikely to be accepted by the losers, who have threatened violence if they are inducted into the Kurdistan region against their will.
Some Goran officials in Kirkuk, by contrast, seem to be saying something new - that the only sensible way to proceed is to restore trust between the ethnic communities and let Kirkukis decide for themselves, over time, what the best solution is for Kirkuk, by referendum or otherwise. This is music to the ears of Arabs and Turkomans, who have made no secret of their hope that Goran will gain a couple of seats at the PUK's expense, even if they themselves wouldn't vote for Goran, lest they increase the overall Kurdish vote. As voting ended, however, Goran looked to have done less well in Kirkuk than it had expected and may be lucky if it gains a single seat.
For now, it is too early to determine each party's true strength. Votes are still being counted and all sides have made accusations of fraud that will have to be investigated and adjudicated before the supreme court certifies the final tally. The stakes are enormous, however, here in Kirkuk, and many worry that gunfire directed at the sky tonight will find more serious targets once the results are in and all sides draw their own conclusions, and act on them.
Joost Hiltermann is the Deputy Middle Eastern Program Director at International Crisis Group.