The KRI, Kurdistan Region of Iraq, holds its first elections after the defeat of ISIS this weekend. The Kurdistan Region went through unprecedented changes over the last four years from the war against ISIS to a damaging financial crisis and independence referendum. In 2009, when the Gorran Movement became the face of political dissidence in the KRI, there were hopes that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) could be a democratic region and an example for the rest of Iraq. The flaws of governance became more visible after the formation of the Gorran Movement, which was parallel to the Arab Spring. There were protests in the KRI demanding better public service provision, infrastructure-based development, and separation of political parties from the state. The Gorran Movement was the face of this social and political mobilization until 2013, when dissidence and opposition became weaker and weaker due to the KRI’s financial crisis caused by falling oil prices and the war on ISIS.
It is clear that the majority of the people have lost faith in the possibility of elections bringing any change to the region. These are parliamentary elections, and the parliament has been the weakest institution in Kurdistan Region— particularly after its closure in 2013 amid disagreements between the Gorran Movement and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) over the extension of Barzani’s presidency term, former president of KRI. As a result, the KDP closed down the parliament and sent home its speaker for almost two years.
The threat to fair and free elections worldwide has been the rise of populist movements, such as in Turkey and the United States where the elected parties and presidents are part of a larger threat to the minorities and underprivileged groups. But in dysfunctional and crippled democracies, there is no threat to begin with since the autonomous Kurdistan Region existence before and after the Iraq war, the outcomes of all elections have been more or less the same. The only one change that is worth noting is the forming of an opposition party. In 2009, Nawshirwan Mustafa, a senior member of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), announced the Gorran Movement as an opposition party. To which extent has Mustafa’s legacy been worth noting is a whole question on its own. Since Mustafa was an old ex-member of the PUK, he directly posed a threat to the fanbase of the PUK. The rise of corruption and Barzani’s refusal to step down as president of the KRI frustrated people and put into question whether the KRG could be a democratic region.
The results of the following elections that consisted of the KDP, PUK and the Gorran Movement enraged the two father parties. While no other party had been a direct threat to the seats either party held, the Gorran Movement became a threat to the ruling parties, at least in areas where PUK was prominent. The KDP was not as worried about losing its votes since it has built its support base on family ties and a traditional tribal mindset, but the PUK, which claims to be secular and democratic with fewer family ties in its regions, was the party that lost seats to the Gorran Movement. It was the first time the KRG had seen a political competition of this kind.
Nonetheless, the struggle continued to bear no fruit. Major faces of PUK and the Gorran Movement, Jalal Talabani and Nawshirwan Mustafa, died within a period of time and people’s despair in the Sulaymaniyah governorate skyrocketed. Competition increased, and an ex-prime minister and PUK member, Barham Salih, announced the Coalition for Democracy and Justice in 2017. Hopes shifted once again, from the failing Gorran Movement and its Islamic allies to Barham Salih’s new horizon of dreams. In hopes of becoming the Iraqi President, Barham Salih declared his resignation from his own party by joining the PUK again in hopes of becoming the president of Iraq.
Shaswar Abdulwahid, a businessman with ties to the Talabani family, is another side of the many failing faces of hope in the KRG. As a businessman who advocates for “justice” and “transparency”— though there are questions and lack of transparency related to his wealth and projects— his New Generation Movement has little support from Sulaymaniyah governorate. However, it is difficult to say that the New Generation Movement poses a threat to the PDK or the PUK. So what is going to be the outcome of the elections? Needless to say, the PDK will come first due to the rentier state it has created in Iraqi Kurdistan with the PUK. It will be the same old names with a few new faces here and there that will speak more like neo-liberal antagonists of the old dream of democracy.
Once upon a time, many argued that the KRG could be the only hope for democracy in the Middle East. The neoliberal and imperialist motives in the region have not only destroyed all aspirations for democracy but also established a culture in which people cannot comprehend the long-term dangers of this failing democracy— or if you will, this rising dictatorship. The Kurdistan Region has become the puppet; a puppet of the neighbouring countries of Turkey and Iran and as well as the US. People have lost faith in the election bringing justice to democracy, but the existence of a strong opposition force will be vital for the future of the region and systemic change and pressure for further democratization.