“Helping construct a stable democracy after decades of dictatorship is a massive undertaking,” President Bush said on May 24, 2004. Having had more than a decade of democracy under the no-fly zone, Iraqi Kurdistan could be an shining star in the largely undemocratic Middle East. However, growing corruption and oligarchic rule in Kurdistan is an increasing problem and an embarrassment to both Kurds and their friends. Democracy in Kurdistan has wavered, and now its chance of success may have suffered a fatal blow: Last week, the ruling party incited a mob to murder the Kurdistan Islamic Union’s top candidate.
The democratic experience in Iraqi Kurdistan started with their 1992 elections. There was near parity between the Kurdistan Democratic party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, but power-sharing broke down and a brief civil war erupted. When the dust settled in 1997, each party declared an administration on its controlled territories; one in Erbil and the other in Sulaymaniyah. On January 1, 2005, Kurds elected a second parliament.
And there have been other elections. Each autumn, secondary-school and university students hold student elections. Candidates run by political party. The two major parties also demonstrate support through administrative contests, although the parties do not directly contest each other’s elections. During the post-liberation student elections, both parties claimed victory. In the aftermath, tension still remains as neither party is willing to accept defeat, and the results are still unknown. In the meantime, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) has grown to become a third alternative.
The KIU, known in Kurdish as the Yekgirtu, is a moderate Islamic party that won a range of 15 to 25 percent of the votes in the municipal and student elections. Unlike other smaller Kurdish parties, it has refused to align itself in the destructive KDP-PUK dispute. It also has a national representation. It has six seats in the outgoing Iraqi parliament and nine in the Kurdistan parliament, along with a minister in the KDP administration.
The monopoly of power held by the two main Kurdish parties undercuts democracy and pluralism. Each party has absolute control over its territories, and membership in these parties is a requirement for employment and admission to graduate school. The two are the main source of wealth and power.
With a platform of “Fighting corruption and providing services,” the KIU declared on October 22 that it would not run on a joint ballot with the Kurdistan coalition but rather run alone for December 15 elections. “Having enshrined a fair amount of our people’s rights,” the KIU declaration said, “it is time to do some housekeeping. Democracy, pluralism and competition are suffering in Kurdistan. People are losing confidence in ballot boxes, and the proof is the low turnout in the October 15 referendum.” The KIU believes that another single slate will only further the political inertia in Kurdistan, and hopes that its move will stir the stagnancy. In a poll conducted by Hawlati newspaper, KIU is on track to get 11.7 percent of the votes.
Both the KDP and PUK have criticized the KIU decision to stand alone. KDP and PUK-dominated media, their proxy clerics, and teachers demonize the KIU as the traitor of the Kurdish cause.
Salahaddin Bahaddin, the head of the KIU, had responded to such allegations in an interview by saying that “the KDP and PUK chose the coalition as an alternative to another civil war.” He described democracy in Kurdistan as “lethally sick.” “Our move will give people a choice here, and increase a [Kurdish] voice in Baghdad.” In the absence of political tolerance, KIU’s decision is an embarrassment to the two parties’ decade-long empty nationalism.
But the KIU paid the price. Last week, KIU’s top candidate and politburo member, Mushir Ahmad, was killed in his office, and five of the party’s offices in KDP-controlled towns, including KIU TV, were burned down. The KIU says on its website that the attacks were orchestrated and carried out by mobs mobilized by the KDP. In a telephone interview, a KIU member who witnessed the killing said, “It was all planned. The security forces promised to protect us. They shepherded us to the backdoor where the assassins were waiting for us. He put a bullet in the head of Mushir.” He said that they have videos of the attacks in Dohuk, where the police stood by while the attackers ransacked the building, and in Zakho, where RPGs and grenades were fired at the KIU office.
Government media described the incidents as flare-ups of popular anger against KIU for abandoning the Kurdish cause. On November 19, Radio Nawa reported that one of its reporters was arrested for reporting a demonstration in Erbil. While demonstrations against the lack of services are unnaturally rare, “angry Kurds” organized simultaneous attacks in five different cities!
In a letter addressed to Ashraf Qazi, the U.N. special representative in Iraq, Bahaddin described the act as a “deadly blow to democracy and rebuilding Iraq,” and said that “your and the Coalition’s forces’ credibility is at stake.” The violence was officially condemned, but the duality of rhetoric and practice is commonplace in Kurdistan.
America, its Coalition partners, and the growing Iraqi military are fighting the insurgency throughout Iraq to make next week’s election possible. While doing so, they should not ignore the Kurdish backyard. Democracy is being sacrificed for stability, and we Kurds seem to be losing both. Politics and security should not be sacrificed to the personality cult of a few politicians. Kurdistan’s three provinces were on the U.N.’s blacklist for election fraud in the January elections, and if Kurdistan continues on this path, it is only a matter time until we’re left behind on the democracy train.
– Bilal Wahab is a Fulbright Scholar from Iraqi Kurdistan, studying politics and good governance at American University.