A medic rushes the victim of a recent truck bombing to a hospital in Sulaimaniyah, 260km northeast of Baghdad. The hunger for reform is manifest in this most populous province of Kurdistan

Every suitable flat surface in Iraqi Kurdistan is covered in election banners, some so vast they have been shredded by the desert wind. In this part of the country, most of the flags are dark blue, the colour of the Goran (Change) party which in the general election yesterday was challenging the Kurdish political establishment for the first time.

It has been a surprising campaign. Goran leaders appear a little bemused by the surge in support for them and the extent of dissatisfaction with the powers that be. This hunger for reform is very evident in Sulaimaniyah, the most heavily populated province in Kurdistan. In the hills close to the Iranian border, I saw a young man riding a bicycle with two blue flags tied to the handlebars. At a nearby picnic spot, a family had spread a blanket on the ground as a Goran flag waved over their heads.

Such political engagement has never been seen in Kurdistan before. Through gritted teeth the two ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), say they welcome effective opposition as a sign of democratic progress. For its part, Goran hints at emulating Georgia or Ukraine by carrying out its own "orange revolution" against the establishment. This is made up of former insurgents entrenched in power ever since they successfully led the Kurdish national liberation struggle against Saddam Hussein. The poll yesterday could show that appeals to Kurdish nationalism no longer trump growing resentment against the new Kurdish ruling class.

Denunciations of the PUK and KDP have grown in volume over the past few months. Driving along a road leading to a mountain overlooking Sulai­maniyah last week, I suddenly saw a party where many people were dancing and celebrating in front of a large yellow excavator draped in blue flags.

"Everything must change after 18 years," said Dara Jabar, who works in England but had come back to vote, and was attending the celebration. "They must give the money they stole for themselves and their political parties back to the people."

The parties in question are the PUK, founded and led by the president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, and the KDP, led by the president of the quasi-independent Kurdistan regional government, Massoud Barzani. For many Kurds their past achievements and current efforts to avert the threat to the Kurds from a resurgent Iraqi government are no longer enough to justify their autocratic, secretive and corrupt rule.

In many respects Talabani and Barzani are victims of their own success in bringing peace to Kurdistan. Younger Kurds no longer sense the same imminent danger as their fathers. A young woman at the street party in Sulaimaniyah said: "Barzani and Talabani keep all the oil wealth for themselves. People with university degrees drive taxis and people live three or four to a room. Of course we want change."

Events in Kurdistan are similar to many countries where revolutionary leaders become comfortably established in power. But this development is all the more serious in Kurdistan, indeed in Iraq, because their governments wholly depend on their oil revenues. The government receives this money, 17% of Iraq's oil revenues, from Baghdad. There is no real Kurdish economy. The country produces almost nothing, with even bottled water in Sulaimaniyah coming from Iran or Turkey. All good jobs are with the government, spending 65% of its budget on salaries, and operating a gigantic patronage machine through the KDP and PUK.

The ruling parties in Kurdistan will probably hold power after yesterday's poll, though many predict that Goran will get 15-20 seats out of 111 in the new parliament. In poorer areas of Sulaimaniyah yesterday, most voters said they voted for change.

Kurdish leaders say the majority do not remember how bad things were in 1991 when they took over. It is easy to see what they mean. I came to Sulaimaniyah in that year, just after it had been recaptured by the Iraqi army which was unearthing the bodies of its secret policemen who had been killed in the Kurdish uprising. Four years later I visited a village called Penjwin where people avoided starvation only by defusing a particularly dangerous type of Italian-made mine called the Valmara, which had been laid everywhere by the Iraqi army. Villagers defused them to sell for a few dollars the explosives and aluminium in which they were wrapped. Many villagers died and Penjwin's main street was filled with people without feet or hands.

Kurdistan is far better now, but it is a deeply unequal society. In the capital Arbil there are newly-built gated communities of luxury houses while in much of the city people complain they cannot afford rents. The new elite are widely resented and many demand a larger share of the national cake. There is a possibility that, if the reformers of Goran feel they have been robbed by a fixed poll, they will take to the streets in protest, as in Iran. What is happening here in Iraqi Kurdistan today may be a precedent for the rest of Iraq, where the government is far worse and where many Iraqis believe their oil money is being systematically looted to line the pockets of a semi-criminal ruling caste that replaced Saddam Hussein.