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Dream of ‘Other Iraq’ Crumbles: Whose Political System is More Stable – Iraqi Kurdistan’s or the ‘Real’ Iraq’s?

Niqash – Sulaimaniyah 

In Iraqi Kurdistan one local party has just paralysed the whole political system. It’s a region touted as the “other Iraq” because it’s more stable and prosperous. But how does the “other Iraq” compare now?

Unrest Continues in Northern Iraq
Blood on a Kurdish flag at protests in Sulaymaniyah in 2011

The repercussions of the event that took place on the morning of October 12, 2015, at the entrance of Erbil, the capital city of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, will continue to impact politics in this area for years to come. A partisan decision – enforced by weapons – has put an end to the democratic process in Iraqi Kurdistan. Armed men from one of the region’s major political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, prevented the Speaker of the Kurdish Parliament and a number of MPs from entering the city, so they could go to work at their government offices.

At a press conference a few hours later in Sulaymaniyah, the region’s other major city, the Speaker of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Parliament, Yusuf Mohammed, told assembled media that there had been a “coup against the legitimacy of Parliament”.

Often called “the other Iraq” because of its relative stability, security and economic growth, Iraqi Kurdistan now faces a very difficult test. A political party – the KDP – that has only 38 seats within an 111-seat Parliament has been able to suspend the government’s work without having to answer any questions. The KDP has also announced a new group of Ministers to replace the ones it threw out.

So is the “other Iraq” really as stable and progressive as many people would like to think it is?

Before the event on October 12, there had already been sit-ins and demonstrations in some parts of Sulaymaniyah, which is known as the most liberal of Iraqi Kurdistan’s three provinces. These were staged by local teachers, who were protesting the fact that they had not been paid for weeks. The sit-ins were eventually followed by demonstrations which began to turn violent after protesters started attacking KDP headquarters. Medical sources report that five people were killed in the clashes between security forces and protestors and around 180 people were injured.

The KDP then laid the blame for the protests on one of the other political parties in the region, the Change movement, also known as Goran, saying that this party – which was elected on an anti-corruption mandate and which has tipped the political balance in Iraqi Kurdistan – had incited violence.

But of course what many locals believe is that this is really about who will be the President of Iraqi Kurdistan. In 2005, Parliament nominated Iraqi Kurdistan’s President, Massoud Barzani of the KDP, to the job – in Iraqi Kurdistan, the president may only remain in power for two four-year-terms. Barzani’s second term was supposed to end in 2013 but he clung to the Presidency through clever sleight of legislation that many considered illegal. That gave him another two years – and those two years ended at midnight, on Wednesday August 20, 2015. Since then, Iraqi Kurdish politics have been firmly focussed on this issue because the KDP believe he should stay in the job.

The KDP justifies this position by saying that while the region is facing a security crisis and an enemy like the nearby extremist group known as the Islamic State, or IS, then the people need a strong leader like Barzani. However, ever since the question about the Presidency was posed, all other parties in the region have said they don’t agree to an extension – especially if Barzani is able to retain the powers he already has.

Currently the situation seems deadlocked and for many in the “other Iraq”, relatively unstable with fears about further protests and possible violence.

So whose political system is closer to failure? Well, as long as there is one party in the Kurdish region that can paralyse the whole system, the answer would have to be the “other Iraq’s”.

But one can examine the question in more detail too. The “real Iraq” has seen four Prime Ministers come and go and three different Parliaments. It has also had three different Presidents, two of whom were Kurdish. The changes were not easily come by, but they did eventually happen. Democracy is a process – although some would also argue the changes are what has made Iraq proper so unstable and victim to extremist groups like the IS. In contrast, the “other Iraq” has only had one President since 2005: Massoud Barzani. The Prime Minister’s job was held by two people, one of whom is Nechirvan Barzani, the President’s nephew. And some would argue that the lack of change in what has been described as a kind of friendly dictatorship accounts for the region’s stability and security.

The recent stoushes have also reminded everyone that Iraqi kurdistan used to be at war with the two major fighting forces being the KDP and the other major Kurdish political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. Basically, after they stopped fighting one another, the two parties have split the region between themselves – this also counts for the region’s military and administrative functions. The Change movement was a popular break away party from the PUK, which is why they have caused such a problem for the two-party power-sharing system that was in place before.

“There has been no unified system or unified armed forces for the past 23 years,” says Kamel Mahmoud, a local writer and political analyst. “Everyone here is responsible for the partisan nature of our state. Everything in Kurdistan operates depending on which party you’re faithful to.”

The fact that the region is actually split was well demonstrated when armed forces in Erbil also closed the offices of NRT, a private TV channel, and the KNN channel, which is affiliated with the Change movement, this week. Both channels are headquartered in Sulaymaniyah – PUK territory – and had offices in Erbil. The armed men forced the television station employees to go back to Sulaymaniyah.

The KDP is to be blamed for this situation, says Rebwar Fatah, founder and Managing Director of Middle East Consultancy Services, a company based in the UK. “The KDP considers power in the Kurdistan region its own property,” Fatah told NIQASH. “It expels Change movement politicians from Erbil as if they are quarrelsome students, sending them back to their homes in Sulaymaniyah.”

“The Change Movement is a Kurdish force with just as much legitimacy as any of the other parties,” he continued. “Nobody can mobilize half a million voters without that. What has happened is unconstitutional and can best be described as a coup.”

Despite these problems though, Iraqi Kurdistan is still way ahead of Baghdad in terms of security, peaceful coexistence and religious diversity.

Recently there have also been anti-government demonstrations in the south of Iraq but demonstrators in Baghdad say their protests are different.

“We want to reform the government and change those who have power,” some of the protesters in Baghdad, who wished to remain anonymous, told NIQASH. “In Kurdistan their demands are more modest. They just want their salaries and an end to this presidency problem. We are getting our salaries.”

Another major difference: In the “real Iraq” there have been no deaths during protests, even after two months of demonstrations. In Iraqi Kurdistan three young people were killed at the KDP premises in the Qalat Dizah district, 130 kilometres north east of Sulaymaniyah, and there were another two deaths at the KDP headquarters in Kalar, 140 kilometres south of Sulaymaniyah.