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 Reform in Kurdistan region between half-baked projects, petrified power, absent Opposition (Part 3)

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Reform in Kurdistan region between half-baked projects, petrified power, absent Opposition (Part 3)  13.2.2009
By Dr. Kamal Mirawdeli  

February 13, 2009

Part 3: The difficult birth of Opposition. | Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Unfortunately it seems that maintaining family hegemony, power and privileges is the sole aim of Barzani and Talabani and their servile parties without being concerned about the devastating effect this selfish conduct will have on the future of what they call Kurdistan’s self-rule experience and its image and legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Otherwise if they had realized their responsibilities and opportunities as leaders of a nation, they would have set different sets of national and democratic goals for themselves and have by now created a sovereign democratic country of constitutional rule, democratic institutions, lawful structures and civil society organisations recognised and respected by the whole world. Instead, the two ruling families and their apparatchiks have managed to destroy all aspects of civil society and government in Kurdistan including their own parties which have lost any basic resemblance and definition of political parties and have for all functions and purposes been transformed into extended family businesses. 

Dr. Kamal Mirawdeli. His activities in his homeland Kurdistan region (Iraq), among other things he was the Chair of the Kurdish Writers Union, led to his arrest on many occasions. Dr. Mirawdeli works tirelessly for the Kurdish community in London, and is very active as both an academic and a poet
The sole aim of the so-called strategic agreement between PUK and KDP, far from serving any national strategy, has been to consolidate and protect these illegal familial businesses and their concomitant corrupt dynastic political power and shield them against any outside opposition and external threat. Having monopolized land, property, economy, finances, businesses, employment, government institutions, peshmarga and militias, media and press, community organisations, etc there is no space for free breath or activity outside the control of the extended-family-party-businesses. In this context, reform is a meaningless word. The Kurdish society has been pushed towards a deadlock which, in the absence of democratic participation and Opposition, has left people like the time of Saddam Husain hoping for change through an outside intervention or an opportunity for a new uprising. Therefore although the ideas and projects of the reformists, like Nawshirwan Mustafa and the grouping of the four smaller parties, may represent the interest and demands of the majority of people, it is a testimony of their helplessness and impotence, as well as lack of leadership and courage, that they are afraid even to wrench themselves outside the shadows of the two corrupt dominant parties and announce themselves together with other independent civil society organisations and personalities as an Opposition alliance. These groups are prisoners of their own past. They not only did accept the unconstitutional and illegal control of the two parties over all aspects of Kurdish society, including illegal appropriation of a big chunk of Kurdistan region’s budget, but they have for the last 16 years also shared these corruptive practices and accepted small handouts from the larger parties instead of insisting on transparent constitutional and legal procedures for the funding of political parties and management of the government. This has left all power and money cards in the hands of the leadership of the two dominant parties.

Dilemma of opposition and change

In his article: “After all these criticisms what can be done? “Nawshirwan Mustafa explains how the reality of the hegemony of the two parties has made most people hopeless about any possibility of change. He writes: “The two powers: the two parties [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)] have usurped all the government bodies and institutions, wealth and finances of the country, the salaries and wages of hundreds of thousands of officials, employees, and pensioners. They control the fuel, land, property and food of the people. They can take them away and leave a family homeless and hungry on the street. The two powers have their own security force, police, peshmarga and secret organisations. They have control over the courts and prisons. Therefore people are scared of them and whatever we do will be useless. It will have no effect as they can suppress any movement very easily."

This situation has, Nawshirwan Mustafa opines, made some people give up believing that they cannot face such an entrenched power. On the other hand, he writes, “because Kurdish power has monopolized all the powers for itself, and by so doing has alienated the people, it is always sacred of elections and any other democratic change. They try to keep power in their hands at whatever cost and not to lose control. To achieve this aim they frighten people with external threat. They try to keep the people of Kurdistan in constant fear and anxiety to make them think that without them Iraq, Iran and Turkey will eat them up.”

In an interview with Hawalti, the Secretary of Kurdistan Toilers’ Party (one of the four smaller parties) says: “We are the victim of lack of law and transparency. For two years now 57 members of Kurdistan parliament [out of 111 members] including KDP and PUK MPs have been demanding the regulation of PUK and KDP budgets by law and to have the budget allocated to political parties including KDP and PUK’s declared to parliament in a transparent way. Those who have not been prepared to do this are KDP and PUK not other parties.” [Hawlati, 2 February, 2009]

This is a very sad statement of the state of politics, political legitimacy, role of parliament and the attitude of parties that are expected to act as Opposition in Kurdistan region. For 17 years PUK and KDP have continued their illegal usurpation of people’s budget and life chances and for two years the majority of a puppet group called Kurdistan parliament supposed to represent people asks or begs party leaders to act lawfully and declare their stolen budgets, but they are ignored and there are no judges to investigate them and no policemen to arrest them. And for 17 years the smaller parties that get only a beggar’s handout of this robbery accept this situation and even their MPs, for fear of losing their own personal interests and privileges, are not prepared to cry out and resign over this national scandal, which has made Kurdish experience appear to the world as a robbery project rather than a nation-building one.

Opportunities for opposition after 2003

Yes, in a way the dilemma of Qadir Aziz and other small parties is understandable. PUK and KDP leaders did not hesitate in engaging in a criminal four year fratricidal war over the small revenues of Ibrahim Khalil (1994-1998), a war that involved ugly acts of treason unprecedented in the history of any other national movement in the world. Therefore the smaller parties have a point when they say they have been accepting this status quo to keep Kurdish unity and prevent further fratricide. But if there was such a justification until April 2003, there was no such excuse after that. The last five years was the golden time for the emergence of civil non-violent democratic Opposition. It is the mentality of self-interest, one-man leadership, enjoying the fruits of corruption, fear of change and indifference to people’s pains and hopes that is shared by all Kurdish parties’ leaders that has prevented the emergence and operation of any democratic government or alternative. Otherwise, while before 2003 KDP and PUK could have invited Saddam’s, Turkish or Iranian armies to protect their power, as they already had done before 2003, it was impossible for them to do so with the presence of American and multinational forces and the new political process in Iraq. This made non-violent political opposition not only possible but imperative to prevent the repetition of the treasons and crimes and tribal politics of the past as well building a new democratic future for our nation.

Democratic changes in Iraq in five years

The process of the recreation of Iraq constitutionally and as democratic institutions should have given courage, motivation and example to aspiring Kurdish politicians and parties to act vigorously to take advantage of these opportunities to ensure that Kurdistan (this great model of democracy for the rest of Iraq!) would not get behind again and lose legitimacy of self-rule. But the failure of Qadir Aziz, other party leaders, Nawshirwan Mustafa and Jawhar Namiq to even dare to call themselves Opposition or to even to say that they have intention to work as Opposition demonstrates to the outside not only the degree of oppressiveness and dictatorial intolerance that marks KDP/PUK monopoly of power, but it also shows that Kurdistan is bereft of men of credibility, courage, character and conviction. Just look at the epochal changes that have been happening in Iraq just in five years, despite its ruin, terrorism and sectarian strife, and compare it with the retardation of Kurdish politics, society and culture under selfish power-hungry anti-democratic warlords.

• In Iraq, different trends and directions and realignments have happened within Sunni groups.

• Al-Dawa party and the Supreme Islamic Council abandoned their consensual anti-democratic coalition ad fought the councils elections as two separate parties.

• Muqtada al-Sadr left leadership of his group to other people and different trends have appeared within his group.

• Al-Ja’fari split from al-Maliki and set up his own political organisation and fought elections independently.

• In addition, in the last five years there have been two presidents (the former’s name has already been forgotten by people) and three premiers, two premiers have changed through elections and parliamentary action.

• The Speaker of parliament was toppled by the rebellion of MPs.

• Iraqi parliament has proved its effectiveness in many areas and cases for example the amendments to Iraq/US security agreement, the discussion, analysis and approval of the budget, the setting up of various parliamentary commissions, the setting up of the High Electoral Commission and supervising elections, etc.

• The work of Iraqi parliament has been transparent and parliamentary sessions have been real and shown to people on TV screens

• The political diversity and democratic tolerance reached a level that even terrorists who had participated in criminal terrorist acts have been allowed to set up their own groups and participate in elections.

• The latest successful provincial elections were another landmark of Iraq’s recognised democratic process.

• Al-Maliki has proved his credential as a powerful leader with vision, character and determination.

• There is maximum freedom of organization and freedom of expression in every way possible and to every one as graphically demonstrated by the Ba’thist journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi’s throwing his shoes at the ex-President of the US George W. Bush in December 2008.

But in Kurdistan the old guards Masu’d Barzani and Jalal Talabani are leaders for life and their political bureaus are never-dying dinosaurs and their parties are their personal companies and the government is a party business and everything even air, as a young journalist wrote, is monopolized by them with no space for justice, equality, democracy, opposition, diversity and difference. Yet people like Kurdistan Socialist Party and Kurdistan Toilers Party leaders and people like Nawshirwan Mustafa that have participated in Kurdish national movement in the mountains and they have personally more proud records that shameful ones, still until this very moment are too timid and feeble to even suggest that they would act or want to act as democratic Opposition!

Lack of leadership

The Toilers’ Party leader Qadir Aziz explains the reason for this, in his interview with Hawlati, as follows: “If the [smaller] parties have not become Opposition, it is not because they do not want to become Opposition. But because the grounds for Opposition from the viewpoint of these two [dominant KDP and PUK] parties and from the viewpoint of the smaller parties themselves and the society have not been matured. There is still no persuasion and that level of democracy by these two parties that they would see the existence of Opposition as the complimentary and benefit of their party and as a yardstick to show the health of their power. There is still no law for the protection of the rights of the Opposition. Still the parties outside power cannot protect themselves from the threat of these two parties if they choose to become Opposition. In addition, the society and the consciousness of people have not developed enough to realise the need for Opposition and support it. It is true that people generally have discontent but this discontent has not become a conscious position yet. People vote less for programmes [than for parties] and PUK and KDP have managed to tie people to themselves through the salaries they give them.” (Hawlati, 2 February 2009) It is really tragic to read these feeble excuses. It does not only speak of lack of courage and will but also of lack of basic understanding of democratic politics and law. Political parties exist: as ideas, organisations and leadership, to educate people, work with people and lead people not to follow people and wait for people to understand and support them. In fact, Kurdish street has been an angry oppositional street for many years. It is the failure of parties and leaders to inspire, instigate and organize them that have hindered the development of people’s anger and frustration to organised opposition and even uprising. Kurdistan Toilers’ leader says “PUK and KDP have managed to tie people to themselves through the salaries they give them.” This is absolutely true. But who is responsible for allowing PUK and PUK control Kurdistan’s 17 per cent Iraqi budget, Kurdistan’s other revenues and resources and use this money to pay an army of party members and party militias and thus turn them into servants in a medieval-style serfdom system called ‘model of democracy in the Middle East’? For years I read Mr Aziz complaining about KDP/PUK‘s secret budget but this complaint remained feeble, hesitant and fearful. Or the other hand, have the smaller parties managed to offer people a new example of leadership and party organisation? Have they managed to create, support and develop a generation of new leaders and established the collective, democratic, legal style of leadership and team work? Have they refused to imitate KDP and PUJK’s corruption and obsession with money, property and personal privileges? Have they involved people and consulted them to inform their policies and programmes? Sadly, the answer to all these questions is no. Mr Aziz suggests that they must be invited and allowed by KDP and PUK and then they can play the role of Opposition. They want a law to protect them. But he contradicts himself later by saying that there is already a political parties’ law but KDP and PUK ignore it like any other law they do not find useful to them.

Example of real leadership

Courage, conviction, consistency, character and commitment to people’s cause are the necessary qualities of real leaders. You cannot be a leader and avoid taking any risks. Real leader are prepared to face any challenges as far as possible and reasonable and make sacrifices. Nelson Mandela is a leader because he is Nelson Mandela: a man of integrity, courage, conviction, consistency and commitment and a history of struggle and sacrifice to prove these qualities to the whole world. That is why he succeeded and became an eternal example of courageous and committed democratic leadership. Yesterday another African leader achieved success after a long history of relentless struggle and incredible courage and sacrifices. He is Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. He, as the London Times puts it, made his ‘journey from poverty to power” through his courage, steadfastness and strong will and leadership qualities. That is how the Times (on 12 January 2008) describes him:

“Mr Tsvangirai, 56, has proved beyond doubt his courage, tenacity and personal integrity. He is Zimbabwe's most popular and charismatic politician.”

“Mr Tsvangirai was the eldest of nine children born to a poor bricklayer. He excelled at school but had to leave at 16 to support his siblings. While peers became freedom fighters, and as Mr Mugabe amassed degrees while imprisoned by the Rhodesian authorities, Mr Tsvangirai began work as a sweeper in a textile factory, moved to a nickel mine as a plant operator, and became an increasingly active trade unionist.

He rose through the ranks until in 1988 he became secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions, a position that brought him into conflict with the regime. In 1999 he helped to found the MDC to resist Zimbabwe's slide towards dictatorship, and in 2000 the grassroots party handed Mr Mugabe his first electoral defeat when voters rejected constitutional changes to expand the President's powers.

In 1997 an eight-man assassination squad burst into Morgan Tsvangirai's tenth-floor office in Harare and tried to force him through the window. He was saved by his secretary's screams, but was left lying in a pool of blood.

In 2002 grainy film emerged of Mr Tsvangirai purportedly plotting with a former Israeli intelligence agent to assassinate President Mugabe. He was charged with treason and for two years a death sentence hung over his head until a judge decided that he had been framed.

In 2007 he was arrested, beaten and tortured for attending a banned opposition meeting. His skull was cracked and pictures of his bruised and bloodied face shocked the world.

Over the past decade Mr Tsvangirai has survived at least three assassination attempts, numerous death threats and repeated assaults, beatings and imprisonments. Hundreds of his fellow activists have been abducted, tortured and killed. He is denounced regularly as a Western stooge and his wife and the youngest of his six children live in Johannesburg for their safety. But yesterday he became Zimbabwe's Prime Minister and from now on he must work in tandem with the man ultimately responsible for all that violence. “ (Times, 12 January 2009)

That is how leaders are made and make their destiny and triumph whether in power or in martyrdom. The tragedy of Kurds is that we do not have such leaders. People like Qadir Aziz and Nawshirwan Mustafa expect success to come to them on a silver plate instead of going for it. People like Talabani and Barzani believe they are not mortal and want to take care of their family fiefdoms as long as they can at the expense of their nation and the opportunities of present and coming generation for a free and dignified life.

Nawshirwan Mustafa’s alternative road maps for change

Nawshirwan Mustafa in his above-mentioned article does not identify a solution for going out of the impasse he has talked about. He only mentions various possibilities:

(1) Reform led by the leaders of the two parties: “They should prohibit their political bureaus and their offices, their party centres and branches, from daily interfering in all the institutions of legislative, executive and judiciary powers as well as in the market, universities, police and security. Mechanism of punishment should be established for all those who contravene this decision, whatever ranks they may have.”

(2) Reform of the current institutions: judiciary, parliament and the cabinet: “This is something that is not achievable. These powers are not the real powers of the country. Behind them there is another power that manages these powers and rules the country and this is ‘the ghost power’, which is the political party and its apparatchik within its leadership. Therefore we must not build any hope on this way to change.”

(3) Reform within the political parties. History of the parties and experience has shown that this is near impossible. “The same dominant faction in the party will use every means, including even the use of the gun, to protect its survival, positions, powers and privileges. It will silence different discourses and dialogues, and suppresses different ideas and opinions and the reform and change wings.Political party, since the uprising [of 1991], has lost its ability for a true change and renewal because of the monopoly of its powers, achievements, finances and privileges by a dominant strata. It is not capable of renewal. Therefore, any attempt for change through this road will lead to a dead-end.”

(4) Changing staff and persons, unlike other democratic countries, cannot change anything as the system itself is faulty and problematic. According to Mustafa :“The [present] system of the management of the country is based on some pillars including:

• The confusion between the party and the institutions of legislative, executive and judiciary powers
• Total control over finances, security, police and peshmarga
• Darkening (hiding information about] the budget and financial, economic and commercial affairs.
• Darkening (hiding information about) the political relations between the region and abroad.”

(5) Having convinced that any change within the current political power is not possible, Mustafa considers changes outside the political power, or through people’s action. These are the possibilities he identifies generally:


• By using violence: coup, revolt, urban mass uprising
• By civil opposition: strikes, demonstrations, boycotting elections, fighting back against the officials
• By democratic competition: elections at all levels

Second question: By what means can change be achieved?

• By setting up a new political party
• By forming a broad coalition (front) of organized opposition
• By creating a syndicate alternative
• By forming different and competing lists in the elections

Third question: What needs to be changed?

• The system of the country’s administration
• establishing the rule of law
• Separation of state powers

Mustafa concludes: "The questions are difficult but the answers are even harder!"

Agenda for change without instrument

While Nawshirwan Mustafa's writings provide a lot of ideas for an 'agenda for change', they also demonstrate the difficult task of articulating Opposition or alternatives in Kurdistan. His answers are confusing. It is not clear in the way he has classifies the answers whether he sees them as excusive or interdependent. For example: forming a broad coalition, setting up a new party, creating alternative lists for competing in elections do not need to be mutually exclusive. They in fact can be all necessary interdependent measures. However, Nawshirwan Mustafa and others thinking of change are too late in offering these ideas and also they seem to be offering too little. But the optimistic position is " It is better to be late than never". The examples of changes in Iraq mentioned above show how the pace of change can take its own momentum once the principles, procedures and path of democratic alternative are established. The question and challenge for 'reformists' in Kurdistan is how to ensure that sound democratic process and free and fair elections are put in place.

The way forward

This is a difficult task in the face of the huge power of the two parties mentioned by Mustafa and Qadir Aziz. Narrow-minded isolationist approaches and efforts will be futile. If democratic change is desirable and vital because people want them and because the future of our nation depends on it, then all people, all the groups that are suffering from injustice, must be part of the process of change and contribute to it. If the separation of party power from government and civil institutions is the common ground, then party mentalities and party political culture must also be changed by everyone. The best way forward among they answers suggested by Nawshirwan Mustafa is "forming a broad coalition (front) of organized [democratic] opposition". All ideological and historical differences must be put aside for the sake of enabling such a broad coalition. Kurdistan Socialist Party and Kurdistan Toilers Party have taken a bold and important historical step by allying with two other Islamic parties on a programme, as outlined in their report, which is completely secular, constitutional, democratic and legitimate. This step should not be ad hoc and an opportunistic one. The two parties should continue and develop this alliance as an election pact. Also Nawshirwan Mustafa's group and other should be prepared to work with them. Without a broad alliance the democratic process I mentioned above will not succeed. The two parties will be able to use money and influence and their army of paid party workers to control people and fudge the elections. It is vital that urgent co-ordinated action is taken by any group and individual concerned about ending the corrupt politico-economic system that is threatening the future of Kurdistan region. This broad coalition can include:

1. The four parties
2. Nawshirwan Mustafa's group and supporters
3. Organisations of civil society like CHAK and other groups in Kurdistan and abroad
4. Women's and young people's groups
5. Independent and privately-owned newspapers and publications
6. Independent political activists, politicians , writers , and intellectuals
7. Impendent Kurdish website
8. Support of Kurdish citizens abroad
9. Support of international organisations and democratic governments
10. Support of the UN bodies

What all these groups have always called for and are prepared to agree on as the bottom line is the three 'changes' mentioned by Mustafa:

• The system of the country’s administration
• establishing the rule of law
• Separation of state powers

If this is the common aim, then why should co-ordination and common action be such a difficult task?


1."Interview with Kurdistan Toilers' Party Secretary", Hawlati, 2 February 2009.
2. Nawshirwan Mustfa: "After all these criticisms, what can be done", Rozhnama , translated by Dr Kamal Mirawdeli
3. The Times, 12 January 2009.

Copyright, respective author or news agency, californiachronicle com

The contents of this article reflect the author's personal opinions 


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