Is the KRG Failing the People?
A political crisis threatens to derail the dream of self-determination in South Kurdistan. As if a war with Islamic State jihadis, a refugee burden beyond comprehension and a budget freeze from Baghdad were not bad enough, political infighting and public protests are now added to the toxic mix. Although the leading Kurdish political parties are hardly responsible for the Islamic State’s war, the refugee crisis or even Baghdad’s peculiar understanding of the Iraqi Constitution, they are responsible for other problems. The political infighting and economic woes in the region both seem like the result of poor decisions and bad policies. People are losing hope as a result.
When Iraqi Kurds first achieved autonomy in the most unlikely of circumstances – out of the ashes of 1990-91 Gulf War – the euphoria was palpable. Despite the dire situation, with a war-ravaged landscape and both international sanctions on Iraq and Saddam’s sanctions on the Kurdistan region, people were optimistic about the chance to rule themselves. In 1992 the Kurds went on to hold the first free and fair elections in Iraq. When the result gave the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) around equal halves of the vote, they built a coalition Kurdistan Regional Government that shared responsibility for every ministry between them.
That experiment nearly died on the horns of the KDP-PUK civil war which erupted from 1994 to 1998. From 1998 until shortly after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam, however, the two parties learned to live with each other and ran two separate Kurdistan Regional Governments in their respective regions. They began reuniting their administrations because of the overthrow of Saddam, correctly calculating that a unified Kurdish front vis-à-vis Baghdad and the world could accomplish a lot. They were right, and the 2005 Constitution recognized Kurdistan’s autonomy and enshrined a very decentralized, federal system for Iraq. While the rest of the country descended into insurgency, destruction and government paralysis, a more united South Kurdistan moved forwards – with an increasingly independent oil sector, with growing international investments, with expanding infrastructure and services, and with blossoming international ties that frequently saw KRG leaders treated as representatives of their own sovereign state.
The KRG never finished unifying, unfortunately. While progress was made, most of the Peshmerga remained under the command of the KDP and PUK rather than the government. Government ministers seemed to take their orders from party bosses, some of whom did not always even hold an official government position. While average people developed a national outlook, some politicians’ nationalism seemed to be wholly dependent on whether or not they were leading the nation.
The latest iteration of this sorry state of affairs flared up in the past few weeks, with the KRG’s presidential crisis, protests over unpaid salaries and the summary sacking of Gorran ministers. Gorran, PUK and other parties could not accept another term for President Barzani, as this would contravene the relevant legislation on the issue and increase their fears that the KDP is not really interested in real democracy – which means the real sharing of power and real, periodic changes in leadership. The KDP meanwhile does not seem to trust any of the other parties enough to allow such changes.
As the parties all bickered endlessly over the issue, teachers, Peshmerga and others went for months on end without their salaries. Although this was mainly a result of the budget cut from Baghdad, there should not have been more than a million civil servants in a region with only five million inhabitants. If the political parties were not so intent on buying loyalty via patronage appointments, the income from the good years could have been spent building a more diversified economy. Now the KRG is in the unenviable position of having a rentier state without money. A lot of what income the KRG now earns from independent oil sales goes to the war and the refugee crisis or, many fear, corruption within the main political parties. In the resulting protests over unpaid salaries, some malcontents took the opportunity to attack party offices, policemen and even media outlets – including offices of this newspaper. Such criminality does as much harm to Kurdistan as any undemocratic action from the government.
Speaking of which, last week witnessed the sacking of the Gorran movement’s Speaker of the Kurdistan Parliament. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani has, of course, the right to demand the resignation of some of his ministers (those from Gorran in this case), especially if their party incited the attacks on KDP offices in Suleimani province during the protests there. But he has no right to kick out the Speaker of the Parliament, much less bar him from entering Erbil. He is an elected member of Parliament and he has a right and a duty to attend parliamentary sessions in Erbil. If institutions and laws do not suffice to constrain and limit power, then many more people are left with little reason to support the system, much less view it as legitimate.
Before things degenerate further, political leaders of Kurdistan need to stop and think carefully. As South Kurdistan stands on the cusp of even greater autonomy or even independence, its people should remember what caused the Kurds throughout Kurdistan to squander almost every political opportunity to come their way since World War I. It wasn’t the conspiracies of hostile powers (although that never helps), but rather their own internal squabbles and divisions.
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