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Residents of Iraqi Kurdistan went to the polls on September 21 to cast their votes in the freest vote Kurdistan has had to date. The elections were not perfect: The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has allowed itself to become synonymous with intimidation and Election Day fraud. That so many Kurds voted for opposition parties despite such tactics demonstrates Kurdish resilience.
The polls should usher in a new political era. The results should end once and for all the 22-year arrangement in which the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have predetermined division of power so as to avoid popular accountability. While such a division of power may have enabled Iraqi Kurdistan to rebuild in its early years after Saddam Hussein abruptly withdrew and then blockaded Iraq’s northern provinces, it was also responsible for both a devastating and unnecessary civil war from which thousands of disappeared remain unaccounted and for corruption which now does more to hamper Kurdistan’s development than help it.
For the KDP, PUK, Gorran, and the Islamist parties, the toughest decisions lay ahead, not only for the new parliament, but also for Kurdish political culture. Gone should be the days of taboo subjects in the Kurdish political debate; it is time to address issues head on.
The PUK was the biggest loser. If the party is to survive, it must engage in serious introspection. The PUK has lost popularity steadily for more than a decade. The reasons why are no secret. The PUK formed in reaction to KDP nepotism and its tribal mentality. But, over the past decade, as party leader’s sons have grown from children to adults, the party’s senior leadership betrayed the party’s founding principles and focused instead on empowering and enriching family members. By doing so, the PUK failed to differentiate itself from its more established competitor. Personal ambition also handicapped the party: Some senior leaders spent more time in Tehran, Washington, and Baghdad seeking their own promotion after Jalal Talabani’s passing than in laying out a platform to better the lives of their own constituents. The first lady’s penchant for pursuing personal grudges provided yet more evidence of a mindset in which a selfish mentality undercut the party’s ability to tolerate dissent and build a broad coalition.
The KDP should not take solace in its victory. First, KDP and Kurdistan Regional Government leader Masud Barzani’s illicit maneuver to extend his presidency has, in effect, made the KDP the party of dictatorship, not democracy. Nor should President Barzani assume that keeping power within the family will bring stability. The competition between his son, Masrour Barzani, and nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, is legendary. Both may blur the lines between public service and private enrichment, but Nechirvan Barzani is more skilled, committed to the public good, and popular. As discussion accelerates in Baghdad and Tehran about Masud Barzani replacing Talabani as president of Iraq, the competition between Nechirvan and Masrour could potentially destabilize Kurdistan. Nechirvan is more popular in Washington, DC. Ironically, the Iranian regime—and especially Qods Force chief Qasem Soleimani—also consider Nechirvan to be Tehran’s man in Kurdistan. But Masud apparently favors his unrefined and less strategically-minded son for simple family reasons. Should he continue that path, he may turn off investors and condemn Kurdistan to suffer the brutality of a man who appears to model himself after Bashar al-Assad without the charisma. None of Masud’s sons have been willing to stake their future to Kurdistan, however; hence, the efforts to acquire American citizenship. If Masrour, Mansour, and Mullah Mustafa “Babo” Barzani are truly committed to the Kurdish future, they should publicly renounce the passports and green cards they have acquired. Kurds deserve politicians that put Kurdistan first. President Barzani may see himself as a great Kurdish nationalist leader, but it has been his inability to see beyond his family that has limited his influence to just one or two Iraqi Kurdish governorates. Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan, in contrast, has managed to transform himself into a leader whose influence spans the four countries in which Kurdistan today lies.
Gorran, too, has choices. Its success, not only in Sulaymani where elections were fairest but also against the backdrop of unsanctioned late KDP voting in Erbil and intimidation in Duhok, demonstrate that its rhetoric of reform resonates across Iraqi Kurdistan. What Gorran does next will determine the future of Kurdistan. It should not simply be a party for unreformed alumni of the PUK. The KDP will try to co-opt Gorran, what remains of the PUK, and the Islamist parties in order to protect its own material interests. Should Gorran enter such a coalition, and its leaders accept honorific positions absent the ability to bring change, it will delegitimize itself and for a generation of backers, the hope that the ballot box can bring accountability.
The assumption that all governments should include the broadest possible coalition is false: sometimes, a vibrant opposition holding the government accountable can do more for democracy than simply dividing ministerial portfolios as the spoils of power. Rather than seek positions as perks, should Gorran join a coalition, it should seek entire ministries so as to demonstrate that it can manage bureaucracies without PUK or KDP-style ghost employees, bundled budgets, embezzlement, and inaction.
Whether in opposition or in power, Gorran should take a no-nonsense approach to corruption. Kurdish politicians—even those with reputations for cleanliness—often blur politics and personal business. In both Baghdad and Erbil, many politicians use their sons as business agents; one former prime minister uses relatives resident in Turkey. Whether in opposition or a coalition partner in government, Gorran should sponsor legislation defining conflicts of interest and augmenting personal reporting requirements. The many American consultants should not get a free pass: the new parliament should use its leverage to publicize the terms of these former officials’ business-dealings with Barzani, and current and former prime ministers.
The new government should also commit itself and the new government to freedom of speech and a free press. Turkey may, according to the NGO “Reporters without Borders,” be the world’s largest prison for journalists, but Kurdistan has in recent years been among the largest graveyards. Soran Hama Mama, Sardasht Osman, and most recently Yakob Rasol Mohamed all deserve justice. And if the evidence finds that officials were culpable in their deaths, those officials should be arrested regardless of their family names.
The Kurdish election—even if incomplete without a poll for president—should matter. If current ministers and parliamentarians fearing loss of power block the formation of a new, active government, history will remember them poorly. But so too should Kurds harshly judge newly-empowered politicians if they forget that politicians are accountable to the people and not has been the case for the last two decades, the opposite.
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