Iraqi Kurdistan’s constricted democracy / By Hussein Jammo

In the fourth of a four-part series, NOW examines the situation of the Kurds in Iraq

8.2.2014 – nowmedia – BAGHDAD, Iraq – Corruption, autocratic control of money, market monopoly, buying of political loyalties, control over the judiciary, and politicization of security services, the military, and the police are problematic issues plaguing Iraqi Kurdistan. In this respect, this province is no different from Arab, Asian, and African countries, which do not hesitate to brandish the threat of force any time despotic rule over society and the state is under pressure.

Prevailing political and intellectual theories have it that democratic regimes are based on certain cultural, societal, and ethical foundations. Still, the political regime in Kurdistan can be described as a “tunneled” democracy, as it lacks the three most important pillars of any democratic regime: an independent judiciary, professional police and army, and independent and professional media. Some in Kurdistan – and political elites are content with leaving it at that – believe that the available freedoms, the possibility of holding parliamentary and municipal (and, implicitly, “presidential”) elections, and the formation of a government where power is shared among parties is a convincing-enough form of democracy. Others adhere to the outdated notion that a change in political roles is essential to the establishment of a democratic regime.

When Nawshirwan Mustafa, the no. 2 man in Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), split from the party, he provided supporters of this second definition with grounds for hope. In 2009, Mustafa founded the Change Movement, which emerged as the third political force next to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the PUK. The PUK lost ground in the September 2013 elections, propelling the Change Movement forward as the second most prominent political force in the province. However, the movement failed to act differently from its predecessors, as it replicated the standard behavior of a hierarchical party where decision-making is concentrated in the hands of a single individual.

Kurdish society had gone through a bitter experience of bipartisanship, politicization of civil and social life, and fraternal fighting between the PDK and PUK during the second half of the 1990s. The experience of the Change Movement gave it both hope and despair, because it simply modeled itself based on Kurdish partisan – rather than social – reality.

Accordingly, one can talk in Kurdistan about partisan problematic issues before even addressing democracy. Indeed, the presence of parties with no democratic organizational, electoral, and leadership structures means that it is impossible to establish – or even lay the initial foundations of – a democratic regime.

Iraqi Kurdistan is currently home to about 5 million residents and boasts huge oil and gas reserves. Its numerous parties, meanwhile, form a blend of nationalism, socialism, democracy, Islamism, and Communism. One may unequivocally mention the existence of family, individual, populist, and extremist leanings within these parties, pointing to a political pluralism that falls short of qualitative pluralism in partisan life.

The province’s three main political parties – namely the KDP, the PUK, and the Change Movement – arose from splits, disputes, and personal interests relating to the leadership of dominant parties and Kurdish society in general. The early foundations of these individualist and family dimensions in Kurdish parties emerged following the 1946 collapse of the Kurdish Republic of Mahabad, whose capital was the city of Mahabad to the east of Iranian Kurdistan. Partisan inheritance became a feature of Kurdish political life, one that is still clearly influential as it is implicitly reproduces the same ideologies, systems of governing, and notions of the “masses.”

In short, Kurdistan today lacks independent and professional institutions on the levels of the judiciary, media, army, and police. Accordingly, one cannot talk about democracy and an efficient role for these institutions, which are regarded as the sociopolitical incubators for the exercise of freedom and democracy and choosing popular representatives. Meanwhile, parties are active within the state in terms of finding jobs, service infrastructure, investments, human capital, etc.

Any observer of Kurdish issues would not be surprised to learn that the distribution of residential land plots is being used as a means to buy political loyalty. This practice was actually inaugurated by the Baath Party during the 1980s, when it gave the family of each victim killed in the Iran-Iraq War a car, a land plot, and $20,000 to secure the family’s loyalty to the regime. A political culture has thus emerged in Kurdistan whereby each citizen is entitled to a land plot in return for their political struggle or that of their father or relative, or as compensation for doing their job on top of their monthly salary.

As for human development and the educational system in Kurdistan, schools and universities have yet to undergo any reforms despite the more than two decades that have passed since the end of the Baath rule over the area. Since the 1970s, Iraqi universities have been cut off from world academic and scientific circles. Consequentially, they have transformed into a shrine for partisan education and glorification instead of temples dedicated to scientific research and the formation of scientific and administrative classes. With the exception of a few (civil) private universities established after 2003, public universities in Kurdistan and Iraq have failed to rise up to the global standard of academic research and creativity.

In 2010, under the aegis of Barham Salih, the Kurdistan Regional Government developed an educational curriculum under the title of “human resource development.” This program, which was based on an agreement with international universities, aimed to invest in human capital and identify ways to develop it in the fields of administration, economics, science, and medicine. However, upon returning from foreign study, Kurdish students found their options limited to government employment despite the already-severe surplus of civil servants. Estimates place the number of civil servants at 1.3 million out of a population of about 5 million.

Parties are thus rising as an alternative to the state when it comes to providing job opportunities (disguised unemployment) and monopolizing construction, food production, medication, and oil companies, which are owned and managed by party leaders or their proxies. This calls into question the use of talking about democracy while the province suffers from such structural and political problems as a politicized judiciary, the absence of any formal police or army, constricted media, and poorly-performing educational institutions, not to mention an army of civil servants consuming a huge annual budget without any significant output.

Finally, the vast oil and gas reserves in Kurdistan have attracted many states and major companies willing to engage in exploration, drilling, and exploitation across the province. The local government has thus signed numerous contracts with international oil companies. Many in local Kurdish circles wonder about the fate of the province given that oil reserves of up to 40 billion barrels have been discovered within its borders. Even local street vendors are asking whether oil will infiltrate politics and the pockets of those in power instead of being used for human and economic development.

This article has been translated from the original Arabic. Read part three of the series here.