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 The Politics of City States Should be Avoided in Iraqi Kurdistan

 Opinion — Analysis  
  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


The Politics of City States Should be Avoided in Iraqi Kurdistan  21.8.2012 
By Hiwa Zandi
Special to


Hiwa Zandi is a lawyer, Kurdish politics commentator and Kurdish history translator and researcher. He obtained bachelor of International Relations and Bachelor of Laws from the University of Queensland Australia in 2007. Read more by the Author
August 21, 2012

The political wave sweeping through the Middle East has given the Kurds a golden opportunity to rise from the ashes of historical misfortunes and reclaim their political status in the community of nations. The swiftness and sensitivity of the transpiring political changes signifies the availability of zero margin of error for the Kurds to reap any significant political advantage.

From many centuries, whoever confronted the Kurds said one thing about the Kurds’ secret for success, ‘unity’ makes the Kurds unsurmountable in the face of any opponent. Kurds require yielding the resolve of this wisdom more than ever.

The Iraqi Kurdistan has a special and important role to play in relation to the Kurdish political advances across the region. Kurds in all parts of Kurdistan in Turkey, Iran, Syria and Iraq and the rest of the world are eying the Iraqi Kurdistan play a major role in emancipating the rest of Kurdistan. This imposes a special responsibility on its decision makers at this political juncture to stay united and powerful for the advancement and realisation of Greater Kurdistan.

There are, however, alarming political syndromes appearing in Kurdish politics in the Iraqi Kurdistan.

The first syndrome is the politics of City States which was once dominating ancient Greece in the first millennia BC (first syndrome). This is in the context of Kurdish politics moving in a regionalist direction. In other words, what is being witnessed is polarisation of party allegiance and political power based on a specific region or city as opposed to the national inclusiveness which was once dominating Kurdish politics.

The first syndrome is implicating the initiation of the second syndrome which is the debilitating politics of uniting with regional antagonists against fellow

brethren (second syndrome). That is one party siding with or taking assistance from an antagonist regional power that would debilitate the other party’s political status. This is a wicked political game which was once played by the Kurdish municipalities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What is now uncovering in the Kurdish politics is that the political parties in the Iraqi Kurdistan have shown signs of political disunity in return for individual party interests.

If these viscous political syndromes are to thrive, they may have detrimental consequences for the Kurdish strategic national interests. They could once again not only derail the Kurdish national dream of an independent Kurdistan but also put the status of Iraqi Kurdistan in danger.

A. The First Syndrome: City State Politics

Kurdish politics in the Iraqi Kurdistan has not progressed upon its national framework which was building up in the ‘new revolution’. The new revolution is generally identified with an era of the Kurdish uprising against the Saddam regime spanning from the fall of semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 1975 to the establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in 1991.

     a. The New Revolution Politics

After the end of semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 1975, Iraqi Kurds reorganised themselves in several existing and newly-formed political parties to continue their struggle for autonomy in the Iraqi Kurdistan. The four main political parties included Kurdistan Democratic Party, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Kurdistan Socialist Party, and Iraqi Communist Party (Kurdish wing).

Although there were instances when one or more of these parties involved in the second syndrome by one party taking assistance from a regional antagonist to fight against another or several other parties they laid several positive marks on the Kurdish political culture and social establishment. They were primarily functioning under a national political framework. Their national agendas were embraced by diverse groups and classes of people across the Iraqi Kurdistan. There was no apparent regionalist incentive and local favouritism or dominance.

These parties further played a successful role in boosting the transformation of the Kurdish society from one dominated by tribal leaders, lords (aghas), religious clerics and sheiks to one dominated by progressive political parties, a process primarily commencing from the start of the twentieth century.

Thus the new revolution politics was a kind of enlightening political renaissance. It did not only sow the seeds of modern political ideas such as democracy, socialism and constitutionalism into the Kurdish society but also directed the people to embrace national ideals and sentiments.

     b. The Current Politics

The current politics in the Iraqi Kurdistan identified as post uprising politics commencing with the establishment of the KRG in 1991, has undergone radical changes. It has not picked upon its inclusive patriotic or nationalistic direction. It is rather moving towards regionalism or a polarisation process based upon specific regions and cities. The major political parties’ current constituencies and areas of influence as per the 2009 Kurdistan Parliament election is a good indicator to understand this trend of Kurdish politics.

The political parties dominating the Iraqi Kurdistan politics are characterised by leftist, nationalist, patriotic, traditionalist and Islamic inclination. Theoretically, the majority of the parties intend to follow various centre-left progressive ideologies. Practically, while they adhere to some threads of such ideologies, given the status of Kurdistan, they are primarily driven by patriotic, nationalist and conservative values.

The two ruling parties, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union Party (PUK), both currently possessing 59 seats in the Kurdistan Parliament out of a total of 111 seats, are considered to be centrist to centre left parties. The former, maintains to have populist allegiance. The latter proclaims allegiance to social democratic politics. However, they are both dominated by Kurdish nationalist and traditionalist influences.

The main opposition party Movement for Change (Gorran) which has 25 seats in the Kurdistan Parliament proclaims adherence to social justice, liberalist, reformist and Kurdish nationalist values.

The other smaller parties that have secured seats in the Kurdistan Parliament include three Islamic parties, namely Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) (6 seats), Islamic Group in Kurdistan (IGK) (4 seats) and Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK)(2 seats). These parties consider themselves to be predominately ‘Islamic reformists’ and adhering to moderate Islamic ideology. There are however some Kurdish nationalist, Salafi and isolated extremist tendencies. In particular, IMK believes in Islamic law and that to be the main source of law in the Kurdistan constitution.

There are also other smaller and mainly left-wing parties that have secured seats in the Parliament. These include the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party (KSDP) which has 2 seats and proclaims adherence to social democracy. The Future Party along with the Freedom and Social Justice List (a group of parties) each possess a seat and have left-wing ideological orientation. There are also Turkmen, Chaldean Syriac Assyrian and Armenian minorities that possess quota based seats (a total of 11 seats) in the Kurdistan Parliament, however their role in Kurdish politics is trivial due to the lesser number of seats they possess.

The PUK and KDP both enjoyed strong support from most areas of the Iraqi Kurdistan. However, as the 2009 Kurdistan Parliament election also indicates, PUK is increasingly losing ground in the Slęmani [Sulaimaniyah] and Hewlęr [Erbil] provinces. It is now the dominant party in the Kerkuk province. KDP on the other hand is becoming the dominant party in Duhok and Hewlęr provinces with little or minimal support from the Slęmani and Kerkuk provinces.
Change is a new party founded in 2009 ostensibly in reaction to the two ruling parties’ nepotism, corruption and anti-democratic practices. It proclaims to uphold to social justice values and introduce welfare policies in the Iraqi Kurdistan. The party’s programs refer to many civil society ideals based on human rights, international laws and social democratic values.

This political movement on its face value is a positive development in Kurdish politics in the context of promoting progressive values and culture of opposition scrutiny over the government policies an
d practices.

However, by closer examination of the party’s make up and support base, one can apprehend its regionalist inclination. The party’s power base is only in the Slęmani province. The majority of Change’s leadership including its top leader Mr Nawshirwan Mustafa and Parliament members come from the Slęmani province. The province’s support was primarily garnered not just through anti-corruption stance but also through initiating regionalist sentiment. They stirred a sense of subordination amongst the province’s people for the province’s relative under development. They convinced the people to blame it directly to the ruling parties’ mal practises.

It is noticeable that outside Slęmani, Change has limited grass root support. Although during the 2009 Parliament election, Change received reasonable

votes from the Hewlęr province by including few Hewlęrian candidates on its list, the majority of the voters voted not because they believed in the party and its leadership but to protest against the ruling parties’ nepotism and bureaucratic malpractices.

Similarly, the three Islamic parties’ support base is primarily in the districts of the Slęmani province. They also enjoy a reasonable support from the Hewlęr and Duhok provinces. The KDSP that once enjoyed a regional wide support in the new revolution era, its support base has now reduced to the Sharezur area of the Slęmani province.

     c. Causes of Polarisation of the Support Base

As the above examination indicates, there is no party that has regional wide majority support in the Iraqi Kurdistan. The parties’ political power is becoming increasingly localised as opposed to being nationalised. This is primarily because the political parties are engaged in a constituent polarisation game. The parties are concentrating on local politics as opposed to national politics.

A party having dominance in a city or a district makes it difficult for any other party to operate in its sphere of influence. In their congresses, local favouritism is stirred up by virtually hand picking the politburo and council members as secret nomination lists are distributed to the congress members to vote for. The congress members are also selected on the basis of factional allegiance rather than merit and fair elections.

These developments in Kurdish politics are closely associated with the maintenance of Kurdish traditionalist power. The majority of the dominant party leaders, including those in the politburo, council and regional branches, were involved in the new revolution in 1970s and 1980s. Some of these leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to justify their rule and power in the face of burgeoning social, political and economic progresses in the Kurdistan Region. The favourable national sentiment of the revolutionary era is no longer available that could assist in maintaining their political status.

For these reasons, some leaders have resorted to party factionalism more cordially and stirred regionalist politics. This is so that local favouritism can support maintaining their power and status. At points, it has even led to division and creation of separate political parties.
This detrimental internal politics is heading to the harm the status of the Iraqi Kurdistan. It will have severe social, political and economic repercussions.

B. The Second Syndrome: Polarisation on the National Strategy

The internal political divisions and detrimental political conduct will effectively harm Kurdish national strategic interests. As one party cannot achieve the absolute majority and power in the Kurdistan Region, the uncovering Kurdish political issues indicate that the parties are becoming amenable to the regional powers’ political use.

This is repetition of the old destructive tactics of siding with regional antagonists to achieve one’s individual political and economic interests. The Kurdish politics has experienced this during the internal fighting of the Baban, Ardelan and Soran municipalities in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and more recently in the 1990s.

The recent political manoeuvres to dethrone Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is an example signifying these harmful repercussions. The Kurdish political parties were initially showing a united front on this issue. The Kurdistan Region’s President Massoud Barzani publicly warned that Maliki is consolidating his dictatorial power. He further stressed that it is only a matter of time when Maliki will gain the military capability that will enable him to attack the Kurdistan Region in attempt to dissolve the Kurdish political and economic gains.

In reacting to imminent threat, Barzani initiated his efforts to dethrone Maliki. A political block was formed that included Jalal Talabani, PUK General Secretary and current Iraqi President, along with Iyad Allawi, the leader of the Iraqi list, and Muqtada al-Sadar, the religious leader of the Sadrist Movement. However, after a number of meetings, Talabani retracted from the political campaign aiming to dethrone Maliki. Political analysts believe that Talabani took this course of action because of the pressure exerted by the Iranian government.

Change party also sided with the pro-Maliki block after its leader was invited to Tehran in an effort to divide the Kurdish block and debilitate Barzani’s role in the dethroning campaign.

Regional States also became part of the political stalemate. Iran supported Maliki to flex its sphere of influence in the region. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and Arab Emirates supported the efforts to unseat Maliki in order to contain Shia Iran’s sphere of power in the region.
As uncovered, these political manoeuvres were not successful to unseat Maliki. Maliki being encouraged by failure of the unseating campaign and the developing political division amongst the Kurdish parties became more assertive against the Kurdistan Region. The recent Syrian border military stand-off between the Iraqi army and the Peshmarga forces and closing down the KRG’s representation in Baghdad are political moves taken in this direction. Maliki will further exploit the political division amongst the Kurdish parties if it is to deepen further.

C. Endangering Kurdish Strategic National Interests

Whether or not persistence on dethroning Maliki was a strategic move from the part of President Barzani, the division of Kurdish political parties on national

strategic issues is a severe blow to the Kurdish national interests. Kurdish parties achieved the current political gains after the fall of Saddam in 2003 through strong political unity. They would not have been able to secure the current constitutional rights if they were fragmented along political and regionalist lines.

There are yet big challenges ahead to confront in warranting Kurdish national rights. The Iraqi central government poses a great danger to the political status of the Kurdistan Region. It has not shied to expose its military, economic and political ill intentions against the Kurdistan Region. It is doing anything possible to stop the economic and political developments of the Kurdistan Region.

In addition, there are other significant political developments in the region that will directly affect the political status of the Kurds in the region. These include but not limited to the emerging Kurdish self-rule in the Syrian Kurdistan, PKK and Turkish government’s longstanding conflict and the Iranian conflict with the West over its nuclear programmes.

Considering all these major challenges, it is fundamental that unity over strategic national interests overcomes any short-term individual or party interests. The political parties must function with the same spirit of unity that assisted them with securing some of their national rights under the Iraqi Constitution. It is paramount to make division on national strategic interests a red line in Kurdish politics.

At the same time, the Kurdish political parties are required to engage in internal politics within a national framework as opposed to a regionalist impetus. They require teaching and spreading national ideals and values across their constituencies so that Kurdish people achieve social and political unity. Any effort to divide Kurdish constituencies based on regional or City State politics to achieve short term individual or party interests will lay detrimental impacts on Kurdish strategic interests.

Kurdish people cannot afford any further repetition of siding with regional antagonists and moving the Kurdish society towards a regionalist political composition to attain short-term individual or party interests. Kurdish history is a lesson. Achieving Kurdish national rights lies in a unified political stance.

Hiwa Zandi is a lawyer, Kurdish politics commentator and Kurdish history translator and researcher. He obtained bachelor of International Relations and Bachelor of Laws from the University of Queensland Australia in 2007. He was admitted as a lawyer in the Supreme Court of Queensland on 1 February 2010 and currently studying Master of Laws at the same University. He has worked extensively on the historical and racial relations between the Kurds and Baloches. He has translated and published two books in addition to his own research on the origins of Baloches from the Median Kurds. He can be reached at [email protected] or his Facebook page.

Hiwa Zandi, is a
regular contributing writer and columnist for

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  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author


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