Democracy in Kurdistan: more losers than winners

The power structures of the KRG remain clan-based. The extended family is trusted over outsiders and marriage between cousins is the norm, ensuring the disempowerment of a younger generation only now finding their voice.

Kurdish nationalism has been a prominent phenomenon of Middle Eastern politics in the twentieth century. The autonomy of the Kurdish region of northern Iraq has seemed to promise a first step on the path to a Kurdish nation-state, a goal long-cherished by Kurds in Turkey and Syria, as well as Iraq. The existence of wealth and democratic structures in the north of Iraq might give the false sense that this was a success story for western intervention in Iraq. But, in practice, nationalist claims and ‘democratic’ politics have proved to be a smokescreen for long-established elite families.

However, the Kurdish region of northern Iraq seems to have avoided much of the violence that has wracked the Middle East in the past decade. The government in Irbil (the KRG) has created a pocket of security that has no parallel in the south of Iraq. For Kurds, the American invasion has created a new dawn. In Dohuk, near the Turkish border, you can still hear shouts of ‘Thankyou America’, years after the invasion.

Once the US recognised northern autonomy, the possibility of lucrative aid deals with the government provided a powerful incentive to stability. It has allowed the government’s massive investment in construction, metal extraction and education. Consequently, the KRG itself has become the largest employer in the region.

This desire for external investment has meant that a number of longstanding Kurdish political goals have been put to one side, at least for the time being. The KRG has avoided open support for Kurdish terrorist/ revolutionary groups operating against Iran and Turkey. Though groups such as Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) have managed to launch attacks from within Iraqi Kurdistan, the idea of greater Kurdistan, does not form a major part of KRG rhetoric. While Turkish Kurds, and their European diaspora, continue to talk in terms of autonomy for all Kurds, the KRG has been more focused on its relations with the Arab south and with potential investors.

The national struggle is an important part of the myth-making of the Iraqi Kurds. Some older men still wear the baggy trousers and turbans of the peshmerga, the resistance fighters of the Saddam era. But the KRG seems reticent about the immediate future of the nationalist project. There are good economic reasons for this reticence. The KRG’s immediate priorities are to attract aid and investment from the USA and Turkey. The knock-on effects of such investment are highly visible on the streets of the capital of Irbil, ranging from electronics and designer goods to foreign cars and Filipino maids.

However, these developments have stimulated tensions among the young. This is especially true for those who find themselves outside traditional patronage relationships, or for rural people whose profits have been undermined by cheap grain, supplied by the United Nations. The deal struck between Kurdish political elites has favoured ‘elders’ that control the allocation of government contracts.

As well as being able to invoke their nationalist credentials, older Kurds are much better able to negotiate for power in Baghdad because of their better command of Arabic. An ironic legacy of Kurdish autonomy has been the promotion of English as a language of education. The supposed benefits of this policy remain to be seen. But it has generated a dramatic loss of Arabic proficiency in Kurds aged under 30, who do not even know Arabic numbers. One result of the shift in education towards English has been to disempower a younger generation from involvement in the political world of the south. In the medium term, it will only be the children of the elite who retain the kind of command of Arabic necessary for political negotiation with the south. Kurdistan remains a part of Iraq in structural terms, in spite of nationalist rhetoric.

These tensions, then, may help explain the emergence of the Gorann (‘Change’) movement as a splinter group of the PUK in 2009. This party presents itself as a supporter of youth rights and an opponent of corrupt patronage and censorship. Gorann went on to win 25 seats in the 2009 elections (against 59 seats by the established parties). It was a vocal supporter of the anti-government demonstrations in Suleimaniya in the first half of 2011, in which several protesters were shot by police.

The power structures of the KRG remain clan-based. The extended family is trusted over outsiders and marriage between cousins is the norm, ensuring that wealth is kept within these families. Continued preference for these inefficient, traditional structures has meant that the leaders who benefited from the establishment of the KRG have proved reluctant to tolerate real political opposition or critical journalism. In the short term, the injection of wealth from abroad has led to greater disparities between social classes while leaving social attitudes unchanged. It will remain to be seen whether the KRG can build a political system that can give a real voice to all its citizens and economic advancement within its borders.

About the author

Philip Wood teaches and researches the history of the Middle East. He has worked at Oxford, Cambridge and SOAS and now teaches at the Aga Khan University, Institute for the study of Muslim Civilisation (London).