Maliha Barzanji says that the last party she voted for ended up arresting her son and she never saw him again. This time around, she plans to cast no vote at all, saying she hates both of the two big parties that run the Kurdish north of Iraq. "If they give me their blood," she says, "I will gladly drink it."

Ata Mohammed, a writer, says he'll vote, but will cast a blank ballot as a protest against both parties because they are "corrupt and have blood on their hands."

Grievances like these hang heavy in the air ahead of the three-tiered January ballot — national, gubernatorial and Kurdish regional — which will test the Western-protected enclave's democracy and its future in postwar Iraq.

Bearing the brunt of voter anger are the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, which have ruled in tandem since coming out roughly equal in the last election, 12 years ago.

Their past is dogged by betrayals. On various occasions the parties sided with their avowed foes — Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, Iraq's Iranian and Turkish neighbors — in their drive to crush each other. Their attempt to establish a joint administration after the 1992 election was followed by four years of civil war.

In 1998 each set up a government in separate cities and a shared parliament took office in 2002. Many Kurds are willing to acknowledge that under the KDP and PUK, and under U.S.-British aerial protection since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, their enclave has flourished and today is the safest part of Iraq.

But they also accuse the two factions of nepotism and corruption, and Kurdish political leaders aren't trying to hide their shortcomings.

Barham Saleh, a Kurdish PUK man and a deputy prime minister in the Iraqi interim government, agrees that the parties need to clean up their act.

He says they can be proud of the rights they have achieved for the Kurds, "But now, with Saddam Hussein gone, and with the opportunity of building a federal democratic Iraq and after 12 years of self- government, we no longer can use Saddam Hussein for maintaining some of the unacceptable ways of politics."

Saleh knows the voters want "Political reforms, genuinely fighting corruption, eliminating cronyism and nepotism." He also says it is "shameful" that the parties haven't come clean on the question of the missing Kurds such as Barzanji's son, Yousef, who was 24 when KDP security men raided the offices of a newspaper he worked at in Irbil on July 17, 1997, and hasn't been heard from since.

His mother doesn't know if he is dead or in jail. She has made seven futile trips to KDP headquarters, 100 miles away in Irbil, sometimes accompanied by 38 mothers of vanished children. She said KDP officials promised to investigate. She's still waiting to hear from them.

"They behave exactly like Saddam," said Barzanji, a graceful 59-year-old. "At least Saddam used to show off his dead, boast about it! But it's the total silence that makes it so much more difficult to bear."

The regional election is supposed to end the split of Kurdish administration between the KDP in Irbil and PUK in Sulaymaniyah to the east, and usher in a single Irbil-based administration. KDP officials say they may form a coalition with the PUK against Islamic and leftist groups.

"I think it's better to form a coalition," said Karim Rowsch, a KDP official in Sulaymaniyah. "We went through a bitter experience in the past. This may be a guarantee that there won't be more bloodshed."

They agree on the principle of being part of a federal Iraq, but also want control of the oil city of Kirkuk, something the Arabs of Iraq may resist.

The merging of their politics makes it harder for voters to tell them apart. In the past, each group tried to play on emotions, flaunting its martyrs and heroes of the strife-ridden past.

But voters like the grieving Barzanji, and the writer Mohammed, feel they have a lot to answer for.

"How can such parties transform into a democratic entity and then expect us to support them?" Mohammed asked. "They have a fantastic ability to make people forget their past, even though it was dotted with murder and torture of the population. And the Kurdish people have a fantastic ability to forget."