Kurdistan comes alive

Kurdistan comes alive | openDemocracy | Ranj Alaaldin

Over the past few weeks the Kurdistan region of Iraq has hosted its own series of Arab-world inspired protests. They have been taking place since 17 February and have resulted in at least five deaths and more than 100 wounded. They present, in dramatic fashion, a fresh set of opportunities and challenges for the future of the region, its people and traditional power-holders the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the former the party of current Iraqi president Jalal Talabani and the latter of Kurdistan region president Massoud Barzani.

Kurdistan has now seen it all: umpteen anti-government uprisings throughout its history, civil war in the mid-1990s and liberation in 2003. In the post-Saddam era, stability and economic potential distinguished it as the ‘other Iraq’. Exciting and sparkling in the early years of post-2003 Iraq, that story had run its course and the Kurdish people have found themselves in a somewhat stagnated Kurdistan, stuck between the traditional KDP-PUK dominated Kurdistan with its age-old problems of corruption and rivalry with Baghdad, and the new and vibrant post-2003 Kurdistan that secured liberation from Saddam and offered potential riches.

Combined with the region’s opposition movement Gorran (Change), which controls 25 seats in the 111-member parliament, the protests have given Kurdistan a new lease of life. Yet, they are no new phenomena but an extension of past waves of protest. In 2006, for example, violent protests against government neglect took place in Halabja, the town that, 23 years ago today on March 16 1988, lost thousands when it fell victim to a poison gas attack. Additionally, just four months ago, students demonstrated in front of the ministry of higher education, attempted to storm the building and threw stones at the ministry building. More than their counterparts elsewhere in the region, the Kurds have already long embraced and exercised their right to protest.

What makes the protests different this time round is the fact that they take place against the backdrop of a cataclysmically modified middle east, one that has shifted the balance of power from government to citizen and one that allows citizen to hold government to account one way or another, even if that particular government has the capacity and willingness to violently suppress its people.

In Kurdistan, the setting is somewhat different: there is a democratically elected coalition government (KDP-PUK dominated) and a democratic process that has been recognised as being largely free and fair by the international community. The government also enjoys the support of the population. This is evidenced no less by the fact that the recent protests have been limited to Sulaymaniah province, a Gorran constituency and stronghold. There have been allegations of repression and police brutality in other major provinces like Erbil and the counter-argument is that protests could not, as a result, expand beyond Sulaymaniah, though many in the middle east have now demonstrated their willingness to rise up in defiance of the mass atrocities the Kurds have themselves all too often been subjected to.

Nevertheless, both pro- and anti-KRG individuals still have common grievances. Both bemoan the ongoing corruption, bureaucracy and lack of transparency. Moreover, both deride the overwhelming nepotism of the state, with most major posts being held by relatives of leading officials from one or the other dominant political parties.

By taking to the streets, protestors have re-ignited these feelings across the political, ideological and social spectrum in Kurdistan. They have brought a sense of urgency, and given impetus to the process of reform. This was markedly portrayed last week when, for the first time in Kurdish history, a sitting prime minister appeared before parliament to defend his government’s position and be called to account by lawmakers.

Members of parliament had an unprecedented opportunity to question their prime minister, Barham Salih, a deputy-leader of the PUK; they grilled him for no less than nine hours. The premier provided a poised performance that was strong in both its substance and conviction. He accordingly won a vote of confidence by outright majority, with MPs either satisfied by the performance or rueful of the fact that they were unable to counter his commanding performance.

The episode is significant for two key reasons: firstly, Prime Minister Salih received widespread backing across the political board since, despite expectations to the contrary, he was bold enough to directly and frankly acknowledge the shortcomings of the political system and the failures of the coalition government. Secondly, the episode was testament to the progressiveness of the political system in Kurdistan; it took the state closer towards firmly establishing a culture of law and accountability. Through his performance, Salih set a standard that future premiers will have to match, a task that may turn out to be both challenging and daunting.

The demonstrators are, therefore, starting to achieve their objectives, with no serious citizen expecting the state to fix everything overnight. There is, however, a smaller group of protestors and people in general who wish to see the downfall of the KDP-PUK government. But Kurdistan needs reform and not revolution. It does not need to undergo a process of wholesale deconstruction and reconstruction such as that experienced by the Iraqi state with such disastrous consequences after the removal of the Ba’ath regime.

As part of this process of reform, Gorran and others alike should also be called to account for their performances and, more crucially, expected to come up with solutions and proposals, rather than simple and superficial demands for ‘reform’ and ‘change’. As well as ministers dedicated to reform, Kurdistan also needs competent civil servants, who, in many cases, are incapable of performing even the most routine of tasks in an efficient and timely manner.

It is through this concerted effort that proper change and reform can be brought to Kurdistan, one that, for example, provides for independent and functioning institutions. Kurdistan has a respectable democratic process and some, albeit not sufficient, government accountability. Too much Kurdish blood has been shed for Kurdistan to come this far. These achievements should be built on, and not destroyed.

5 thoughts on “Kurdistan comes alive

  1. Thanks for this article, but I beg to disagree with the main thrust of the argument. I am surprised a respected and otherwise open-minded commentator as Mr Aladin refers to the system in Kurdistan as democratic, and sums up the problems there as “shortcomings” – this is very much the KDP-PUK line of argument. How can one fail to see paraelles with other systems in the region that I am sure Mr Aladin would not hestitate to describe as dictatorial. Let’s list some of them: No internal hand over of power inside the party (Masoud Barzani has been leading KDP since 1979, while Jalal Talabani has been in charge of PUK since its inception in 1975); both parties (not the government) directly control the armed forces (security, peshmerga, police) as well as over 90% of the media; both leaders are grooming their close relatives to succeed them; corruption that will pale that of any nation in the region; no free and fair elections (contrary to what’s stated here) partly because of the above; both parties control the economy, partly through hundreds of companies they set up… I would really like to know what Mr Aladin thinks of the socres of leading Kurdish intellectuals, who are not affiliated to the parties, who support all the things I just mentioned.

    1. Thanks for your comments.

      I think we have to be careful about looking at internal party politics as the same thing as a democratic process that gives the population the power to choose their MPs and respective leaders. Granted that the KDP has not seen much internal movement over the years but that has more to do with the way the party is structured and the understanding therein of those who choose to be a part of it.

      Unlike the KDP, the PUK has seen its upper echelons shaken, most notably by Nawshirwan Mustafa when he defected from the party to form opposition group Gorran. The question in the case of both the PUK and the KDP is whether leaders like Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani can be challenged and undermined by those within their parties should they choose to take this route: the answer is yes and we’ve seen this happen over the years albeit with different degrees within each party and certainly with different degrees of exposure. Don’t forget, most of the PUK infighting is done in the public eye whilst the KDP has been more careful to keep internal disputes away from the media and public domain in general.

      I haven’t suggested the system is perfect and, in fact, I’ve iterated all of the problems you mention (categorised as corruption, nepotism, bureaucracy, etc). In this respect, yes, Kurdistan’s problems can be paralleled with other countries in the region. However, I would most certainly say that Kurdistan is no where near as bad as others in the region; you compare Kurdistan to dictatorial regimes in the region but which of these states have the same respected democratic system with a respected and prominent opposition? And the international community would not declare elections in Kurdistan largely free and fair it wasn’t or just because the Kurds are Western allies, as exemplified by its position toward Egypt’s shambolic elections back in December.

      I’m glad you mentioned the issue of nepotism in your closing comments. My view is that, in light of the changing dynamics in the region and the ongoing protests in Kurdistan, it is difficult for the parties to position their sons and daughters as future leaders. This is save for the one or two individuals who have already established themselves in the political environment. At the same time, if there are individuals who are dedicated to reform and taking Kurdistan forward, then they should be judged on the basis of these merits, rather than their relations. Let’s not forget that even in the West we have sons and daughters of former leaders/politicians who have been and are in positions of power.

  2. Mr Aladin, I have always been a big fan of your writings, however, when it comes to internal affairs in Kurdistan, somehow I feel you are not describing the situations as they are or you refrain from expressing your views. This is due to the following reasons
    1) Lets just clarify a point, there has never been a single government in Kurdistan, since 1993 when they (PUK&KDP) started civil war, killing thousands of Kurds, translocating tens of thousands of others, imprisoning thousands, destroying thousands of homes with the help of Sadam’s tanks and soldiers. I was there at the time seen it all on my on eyes. The point I am trying to make is, there has always been since 1993, two Kurdish governments within three cities, well actually no two governments two militia ruling parties, because we all know there are no governments, there are just their people in the parties running the governments. Just to clarify Talbani running Sulimaniha, and Barzani running Irbil and Dhok cities, and of course with their associated towns. I am sure you know that is true, but however if you are in doubts I will come up with evidence and more clarifications. In your writings I have never witnessed you, writing this fact.
    2) You talk about democratically elected KRG, with little allegations of fraud in the election, come on if you ask any Kurds, know that is not true. The fact is this, the areas under Talabani ruling militia, people to some degree were free to vote who ever they wanted, and there has always been some degree of democracy. However, after the election all those who were working in public sector and voted for a party apart from PUK-KDP coalition block, became redundant by Talabani militia. On the other hand, people in KDP’s Barzani militia ruling areas, were hardly dared to vote for any party other than PUK-KDP coalition block, and there has never been a slightest democratic values in these areas such as free speech. Anyone who says or does anything that displeases Barzani in his areas, would face the darkest and most painful consequences. You know these and all the Kurdish people know them, why you do not mention any of these I do not understand. Again if you are in doubts you could go to Irbil and write a column about the current situation in Irbil, and you will see what is going to happen to you. Not if I want anything happen to you I really really like you, I am just saying this to clarify my point. Therefore, KRG government was not democratically elected, and there is absolutely no democracy in Barzani’s militia ruling areas.
    3) In your current block, you do not mention the nature of the suppression that is going on in Irbil, in fact you say allegedly there is suppression. The truth of the matter is, hundreds of people got kidnapped and no one knows which type of security forces they have been held at. The universities in Barzani areas were shut for 40 days, not by the universities themselves, not by the ministry of higher education, but by the student association affiliated to Barzani party, in fear of holding a demonstration in the areas. A member of parliament of Change party within the parliament itself in Irbil, gets attacked by security guards with “Klashinkofs” weapons of another member of parliament affiliated to Barzani party, and it happens in front of the guards that were in charge of the security of Parliament, and the guards who attacked the member of parliament just gets a way freely, still they are free. Another Member of Parliament of change movement two days ago gets attacked in Klar town by a group of security forces in front of hundreds of demonstrators, and no one held accountable. Democracy is a joke in Kurdistan, and none existence in Barzani militia ruling areas.
    4) The Prime minister’s presence in parliament was just to calm the demonstrators down and an attempt so that people will say that there is democracy. In fact, he did not answer most of the question that he was asked and the vote of confidence was an utter joke. Because the members of parliament who were voted for him belonged to PUK & KDP, you know that they will not dare to say and do anything that dissatisfies their parties.
    5) I am sure you know about all of these things if not more than these, but why you do not mentioning them I do not know, no disrespect but if you are scared of them I would not blame you, but in that case you should pack up your pens and papers.
    6) Finally Mr Aladin, I am a big admirer of yours, and I am sorry if I have offended you in any way, but we Kurdish people want and need people like you to be on our side not at the side of those who drain the blood of the people of Kurdistan. This is because I felt like you just wrote what Barzani and Talibani say about the current situation, such as there are short comings, nepotisms and corruptions. The fact is, they do not do anything about them. People like you can change things, can with their pens and papers gives us a free Kurdistan, give our children and next generation the country and land where their will and hard work determines their wealth and chances in life, not their dad or relatives, and be free at what ever they say and what ever they do. So please Mr Aladin, revisit the current situation again, and write an article in the guardian about them ASAP. The history of the future of Kurdistan is on your hands, my hands, and our hands.
    The following are some evidences of what I have written above
    These are videos about common brutalities against demonstrators

    1. Thanks Hawarr for your comments. Here’s my response:

      Firstly, you have to understand that space does not always permit me to go into details about any specific crimes or human rights abuses, unless of course the article is focused around any particular incident. My latest article on the protests in Kurdistan sought to assess the situation from an analytical perspective, rather than a journalistic one. In other words, the article intended to appraise whether Kurdistan needs revolution instead of reform. It argued for the latter and I am happy to discuss this with you and other readers.

      Secondly, the points you mention are nothing unique. It is common knowledge that the PUK-KDP government is not fully unified and we all know about the events that unfolded during the civil war in the 1990s. Again, unless this was relevant to any article I write then it wouldn’t be included. Even if I was to insert it myself then it would undoubtedly be removed by the editor.

      Third, at no point did I say there were no allegations of fraud. What I did say is that the international community declared the elections largely free and fair and not significantly tainted by fraud. This is in stark contrast to other nations like, for example, Egypt and Afghanistan.

      I am sure the security forces did suppress the protests to some extent or another, as I have maintained in my articles. The issue is the extent to which they were suppressed. Clearly people were not brutalised in the same manner Libyans were during their anti-government protests. Thanks for providing more information about the violent attacks, including the attacks on the Gorran MPs. I will seek to document these in my next article. When I wrote my recent article these were either not documented sufficiently or had not taken place.

  3. Kurdistan is not a liberal democracy, as in comparison to Denmark, Finland, etc. Nonetheless, it do qualify itself as a democracy, this means that some fundamental principles of democratic governance are respected and implemented in Kurdistan. For instance, the right to vote, religious freedom and the right to organise political parties.

    However, this does not imply that restrictions imposed on the above enumerated principles are absent in Kurdistan , or that the society enjoys über-freedom. After all we are discussing Kurdistan.

    But in order to get a deeper insight of the function of the governing bodies in Kurdistan, we have to put Kurdistan in a context. So, when we compare Kurdistan with its neighbouring countries in several key areas, I think that Kurdistan outpace its neighbours in those areas (i.e., human rights records, freedom of expression, etc).

    With this said, it does not mean that everything is “good” and no change is warranted. Heck, democracy is always about change and if the concept becomes static, it erodes itself. Therefore, I’m not against the increased dynamic in Kurdistan. Quite the opposite actually, I think that kurdistan Iraqs society is vivid and organised, this compounded with the increased number of middle class families, will stir the country in the right direction.

    But this does not mean that trashing buildings, downgrading the infrastructure, etc., will help Kurdistan. This is only a uncivilised way of expressing grievance on, added to that is that it will only alienate the masses from the demonstrators, which will prevent their demands to surface.

    Me and other Kurds cannot wait until the nepotism, corruption and mismanagement of resources that haunts the region are uprooted. But there are better ways of achieving this.

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