Kurdistan comes alive

Despite its unique circumstances, Kurdistan has not been immune to the chain of protests across the middle east. Ranj Alaaldin expresses hope that the movement will help build upon, rather than set back, the region's nascent democratic institutions.
Ranj Alaaldin
16 March 2011

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.

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