MESOP NEWS OPINION : Anger over corruption fuels Kurdish protests

By Osamah Golpy  – RUDAW  –  19 Dec 2017 – The Kurdistan Region is no stranger to public protests, mainly in Sulaimani and Halabja provinces that are largely under the control of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). On Monday, angry protesters in these provinces set party and government buildings on fire. They were protesting governance failures like reduced and delayed salary payments and failure to provide basic services. It is wrong, however, to read the dissatisfaction as directed only against the PUK. 

Kurdistan’s two main ruling parties, the PUK and its ally the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), have ruled the Kurdistan Region since the establishment of the regional government following the First Gulf War in 1991. The two parties are, therefore, bear the most responsibility for the failures that drew protesters into the streets. 

Plans to hold protests in Erbil and Duhok provinces, under the control of the KDP, have been repeatedly foiled by security forces and riot police, including in 2015. At that time, the KDP-controlled government in Erbil shut the parliament, sacked ministers of the Gorran party, and detained several people who wanted to stage protests. 

The situation was similar in 2011. The ‘February 17’ protests that continued for months in the PUK-controlled areas failed to reach Erbil and Duhok. The government in Erbil soon shut down Erbil’s Saladin University – a move that was instrumental in preventing protests from affecting the Kurdish capital. The PUK-controlled Sulaimani local government decided to put an end to the protests later that year.

Public anger erupted as the KRG revealed plans to make even more salary cuts in 2018 that will impact those who were skipped when the first round of unpopular austerity measures were announced in 2016. The new measures will mainly affect members of the security forces, including the Peshmerga, reducing their salaries by as much as 33 percent. Some of the people who staged a protest in Chamchamal last week described themselves as Peshmerga. 

While it is true the current protests are fueled by an ongoing financial crisis, and to some extent the loss of the majority of the disputed or Kurdistani areas including oil-rich Kirkuk, a city at the heart of the Kurdish cause, the protest in 2011 perhaps helps to understand that the anger has deep roots. It is as old as the establishment of the Kurdish government. Then, people used to receive their full salaries on time, as well loans to start a family or a business. But this did not stop people from expressing their dissatisfaction.Protesters often chant the slogan “thief, down with thief, partner of thief.” The thief is the KDP, and the partner is the PUK. The two signed a strategic alliance in 2007 that paved the way for them to distribute power and resources between themselves. 

Some of the public believe corruption at the highest level of the Kurdish authority, mainly manifested by the two parties, is a bigger threat to the survival of the Kurdistan Region than that posed by the Iraqi government.

Earlier this month, KRG’s Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani admitted that they failed to tackle the issue of corruption that has affected every key institution. This is despite announcing many counter-corruption probes and reforms. 

One of the main areas where corruption significantly contributes to the public anger is an army of people who are on the KRG payroll, 1.249 million people. This means at least one-sixth of the KRG’s population receive at least one salary from the government. A large number of these people are called ghost employees who never work but receive salaries. They have been able to do this because Kurdish parties, mainly but not exclusively the PUK and KDP, wanted to buy their loyalty. There is also an issue with double salaries. 

This issue of the public servants is especially troublesome when an increasing number of Kurdish youth were promised a public job for life if they pursued education. This was a short-lived dream that was true after 2005 until as late as 2013. The KRG used to hire at least 20,000 people every year during that time. This has stopped since 2014, leaving many recent graduates without a job. Except for a few, many cannot even find a job in the private sector that was hit by the financial crisis.   

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.