Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is currently facing a growing political and economic crisis. Protests started there at the end of the summer over public employees not being paid, and then Regional President Massoud Barzani refused to step down from office when his term expired in August. These two issues converged in October in a series of violent demonstrations which resulted in Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) offices being sacked and burned, crowds being dispersed by force, and the KDP unilaterally declaring the Gorran (Change) Party expelled from the government in what some called a political coup. To help explain these events is journalist and co-founder of Pasewan.com Kamal Chomani. Chomani can be followed on Twitter
1. The current crisis in the KRG began with a series of protests in Sulaymaniya province over public workers such as teachers not being paid. That governorate has seen a series of demonstrations over the last few years, but hardly any ever occur in Dohuk or Irbil. What’s the cause of that difference?
There are different reasons why protests can be easily organized in Slemani against corruption and undemocratic rule of the KRG. First of all, Slemani has been the center of Kurdish uprisings during the history of Kurdish nationalism in the 20th century. Ever since, Slemani has seen different uprisings, demonstrations and protests against the former Iraqi regimes, including the most brutal regime, Saddam Hussein. It is not a surprise that even in 1991 the Kurdistan Uprising that led to establishing the Kurdistan Region started in Slemani. If not for Slemani, the Kurdistan Region would not have been liberated so easily when they started attacking Saddam’s regime, then their morale would have been defeated in every part of Kurdistan. Slemani has been a political, cultural and historical city since the beginning of the 19th century.
In Kurdish modern history, or let’s say after 1996 when Erbil was controlled by the KDP with the help of Saddam Hussein, Slemani enjoyed a more liberal reign as compare to the KDP. Like it or not, the PUK has been different from the KDP from its foundation as the PUK was an umbrella for different political ideologies, Maoists, socialists, Marxist-Leninists and ordinary nationalists. Slemani has been a stronghold province of the PUK after the fall of the Aylul revolution, led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani.
The PUK dynamics have affected Slemani, and vice versa. After 1996 Slemani became the PUK zone, and Erbil & Duhok the KDP zone, this divided Kurdistan into an active Slemani and somehow passive KDP zone in terms of civil society and free media. In 2000, the first Kurdish independent free media appeared in Slemani, following Hawlati, then other media outlets appeared. Hitherto, Erbil has never experienced a successful free media outlet, whereas Slemani has enjoyed free media outlets since 2000. After the fall of Saddam, again, Slemani experienced golden days of radical protests in the whole area that resulted in a student movement and civil rights quasi violent movements.
The PUK reform wing which eventually split from the party and announced the Gorran Movement were active enough to prevent the PUK from being a totalitarian party. Despite the fact the PUK’s leader has always been Jalal Talabani, some leaders questioned his powers in 2006. That would never happen in the KDP. The differences in the reform wing of the Talabani party led to a split in 2009 that eventually led to Gorran appearing. With the foundation of Gorran, the Kurdistan Region stepped into a new era, the era of dreaming about a democracy. All these developments have happened in Slemani, but in the KDP zone nothing was developing, let alone with the iron fist of the KDP facing political dissent.
2. The other issue that was going on in the region was the presidency of Massoud Barzani whose term ended in August, but who remains in office. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Gorran (Change), the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Kurdistan Islamic Group offered a number of proposals to limit the president’s powers in return for acquiescing to Barzani remaining in office, but the KDP was adamant that it wanted to maintain the status quo. Given the current situation are those parties going to have to give up on their reforms and just think about the next Kurdish elections in 2017? And more importantly will those elections even offer the chance to change the KRG’s political system?
The KDP doesn’t understand that its power has been limited and people are fed up with the system. The PUK has successfully diverted media and people’s attention from them even though they are a part of corruption and no different from the KDP with regards to their monopolistic history and culture. If elections were held and the PUK & Gorran joined in a united fraction, then changes in the KRG’s political system would happen, but if the KDP remains the number one party, then elections may not bring any hope, and people already know what’s going to happen.
This time, the people are on the streets because their economic situation is terrible. More than 50% of employees now are under the poverty threshold as they are not paid regularly. An ordinary employee gets less than $500USD whereas house rent is more than $300USD in the center of cities. There are no jobs in the KRG. Recently the Higher Electoral Commission announced 435 jobs, and more than 100,000 applicants applied for the job. Every year thousands of students are graduating without having any jobs. The financial crisis has made more than 500,000 workers jobless. In the oil sector, more than 2500 people have lost their jobs. And there's no reforms in the horizon. Nechirvan Barzani recently disappointed people when he said the government doesn’t have any reform plans. Corruption is at its peak. According to the latest research compiled by the [international] non-governmental organization Transparency International Iraq enjoys the rank of 170 in the list of most corrupt countries. If Iraq is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, then the KRG is even more corrupt as Iraq still has institution, but we lack any national institutions. To give an example, Iraq’s oil sector is managed by the government, but here [in the KRG it] is managed by the KDP, and within the KDP mostly by Nechirvan Barzani the current PM. In Iraq, SOMO [State Organization for Marketing Oil] announces every single dollar that Iraq gains from oil sales, but in the KRG even though almost 900,000 barrels per day are exported, even Finance Minsiter Rebaz Hamlan from the Gorran Movement is not aware of the revenues, and there's no institutions for managing oil revenues apart from Ashti Hawrami, the Natural Resources minister.
3. The KDP immediately blamed Gorran for the attacks upon its headquarters in Sulaymaniya province, banned its members from entering Irbil the regional capital, and then unilaterally dismissed its ministers from the government. Some called this a coup. Even if this crisis is eventually averted through some type of deal what will be the lasting effects upon the relations between the Kurdish ruling parties?
The main issue in the Kurdistan Region now is the Presidency issue which there are two fronts. One is led by the KDP that refutes any projects apart from maintaining Masoud Barzani for another two years, a fully presidential system and does not accept any radical reforms. On the other front, there’s the PUK, Gorran, Yekgirtu and Komall. After the denial of the Speaker entry to the capital city, there was a shock within those four parties as they were not as united as before. I believe the four parties will insist on their demands, which the most important one is to amend the Presidency law that the KDP has been standing against totally. I believe the KDP and Gorran won’t easily work together as the KDP not only refutes Gorran’s demands now, but has more demands [of its own]. The most difficult KDP demand is that they do not accept the Speaker. We have already reached a deadlock. The US and UK must put pressures on all the sides, in particular the KDP, otherwise they won’t reach a consensus. And if they don’t, then civil unrest may resume again as there’ll be no chance for Gorran to manifest itself apart from using protests as a tool.
All in all, I do believe the current cabinet cannot continue, therefore; there should be a caretaker government for less than 6 months and during this 6 months, general elections must be held.
4. The KDP’s main backer is Turkey. The PUK is supported by Iran, and the U.S. has good relations with both. Can these outside powers play a positive role in trying to resolve this crisis, will they stay on the sidelines or even play spoilers?
Iran and Turkey want the current status quo to remain, but the US seems to want to see radical reforms, in particular with regard to corruption. But the problem with the US is that still they use the old political approach which is stability before democracy, but Kurdistan is different from other parts GCC countries. The US and international community must understand that in Kurdistan stability won’t be achieved if there is no democracy.
Iran has recently told PM Barzani to visit PM Al-Abbadi to resolve the problems with Baghdad. Iran does not want to see any changes in the old guardians of the system. For Turkey, too, they want the status quo to remain as most of the Turkish companies are working in the KDP zone and have shares with the KDP top leaders. For Turkey it is important Nechirvan Barzani remain. But Turkey cannot do anything until 1st November, then we’ll see if Erdogan’s AKP can win a major victory or not. The problem with these forces is each of them wants stability not democracy. Democracy has never been a problem for Iran.
5. Finally, what does the situation say about the development of Kurdistan’s institutions and rule of law?
After 2003, the KRG, in particular Nechirvan Barzani started local and international campaigns, spending millions of dollars in international media, academia and think-tanks so as to propagate “the other Iraq.” But now things have turned. Whereas the Prime Minister Al-Abbadi is working to carry out radical reforms and fired some corrupt officials, the Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and his KDP is firing those who had reform plans within the KRG. The KRG at the moment is under no legal rules. The presidency is illegal, parliament can’t hold any sessions and the government is off.
Let me explain the political situation more as there might be some people that yet do not know what’s going on. The political crises in Iraqi Kurdistan has always been there but the political leadership has always been able to cover passing crises with new crises. They have never been able to settle the political crises and address the demands of the public, opposition parties and media.
The recent political crisis is the results of the 24 years of authoritarian, corrupt and undemocratic rule of the two ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by the illegal president Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by ailing former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. After the 1991 Kurdish Uprising, the two ruling parties were not able to form a united, prosperous, democratic and accountable government and they soon started a civil war. After 2003, even though the KRG united practically the KRG has always been two-administrations, in particular with regard to the security forces and Peshmerge. The two ruling parties have kept their militia forces and monopolized every part of business and government. In 2009 an opposition party emerged, but their demands were not met. That led to civil unrest in February 2011. Even though people protested for more than 60 days, and Parliament issued a statement that was voted on by the whole Parliament, which included 17 points of the people's demands, none of the demands were ever addressed. After the 2013 elections, opposition parties joined the government in the hopes that some changes would happen, but when the Presidency issue came on the table, the KDP clearly revealed its true face that it did not accept any changes in the political and administrative systems. Masoud Barzani's term was illegally extended in June 30, 2013 for two years. His two extended years expired on August 19, 2015. The Gorran Movement led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, the PUK, the Islamic Union and the Islamic Group jointly proposed two options for the KDP, but the KDP refuted both as they wanted Barzani to remain in power without any compromises. The four parties asked for a parliamentary system but the KDP refused it. That has brought the KRG to a political deadlock which eventually fueled the masses to come onto streets. Even though the current political crisis has been intensified by the Presidency issue, people have been fed up with the system for a long time, and they have told the KRG leadership on different occasions that they cannot accept the current system.
The corruption is the main reason for the political crisis and civil unrest in Kurdistan, and I am sure if people's demands aren’t met, then it will lead to more violence that no one can anticipate the future of.
All in all, there are two fronts in the KRG; one wants to turn the KRG into a Saudi Arabia model whereas the other wants to prevent this from happening and is struggling for a democratic region in which the rule of law is experienced.