English Opinion

The Dark Side of Democracy in Iraqi Kurdistan: The Rule of Two Clans

Hakeem Dawd Qaradaghi

Hakeem is an Iraqi Kurdish journalist and researcher. He holds an MA in ‎international journalism from the University of Salford, UK. He has worked for several major media outlets in the last 13 years in Kurdistan. He has written extensively on journalism, democracy, the rule of law and human rights for Iraqi and international media in both English and Kurdish.

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is on the edge of becoming completely ruled by two powerful families. The so-called Western allies of Kurds should compel the two traditional ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) controlled by the Barzani clan and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by the Talabani family, to respect democratic norms, hold fair elections and uphold the rule of law in the region.
 
In the last two decades, several outside observers and commentators have claimed the Iraqi Kurdish region is a beacon of democracy in the Middle East. Some of them even go further by suggesting that Kurdistan could be the ‘second Israel’ among the undemocratic states in the hostile region. However, when you observe the reality from inside the country to check the veracity of those claims, it looks like they have either made the whole story up or have been deceived by partisan minders who showed them only the brighter part of “the other Iraq”.

Thus, anyone who has monitored the situation from within the region, sad to say, has noticed the darker reality that is entirely different from the former narrative. You have to go deeper into the details to see which devil is there.
 

KDP and PUK controlled areas of Kurdistan
KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) control the KRI’s territories. Image @ Wikimedia Commons

The establishment and political climate in KRI

The Kurds, the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, have long fought for an independent state, but that dream has never materialized. As a result, their cultural and ethnic rights were oppressed by the different regimes in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Although they have been denied a Greater Kurdistan state, the long struggle of Kurds in Iraq had ended after the 1991 Gulf War when the Kurds established an autonomous region supported by the western states. Many observers argued the region was a de facto state until the failed independence referendum in 2017 (1).

Iraqi Kurdistan’s story began with optimism for a democratic rule in the mostly authoritarian region, but it soon ended up dominated by two powerful families: The Barzanis and Talabanis. Those who observed the situation from within the region, undoubtedly, recognized that the evil part of Kurdistan’s “democratic journey” started as early as the establishment of the region in the early 1990s, which has progressively worsened since. Throughout that period both the Barzani and Talabani families, each with their own armed forces, enjoyed their power extension whilst the opposition and critical voices have been oppressed.

The current political system in Kurdistan, which has been in practice for the last three decades, is neither a full democracy nor a completely authoritarian system. It cannot be defined as a one-party system either. It is rather a power-sharing arrangement between the two political dynasties.

Constitutionally speaking, as part of a federal Iraq, Kurdistan should be a democratic and parliamentary region with a strong national assembly, a symbolic president and an executive authority premier. However, that is only true on paper, in reality Kurdistan has a weak parliament with a wealthy president and a strong prime minister. But that is still only part of the dilemma. The main issue is that both, the president Nechirvan Barzani and Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, are from the same family. The same is true on the other side of the aisle, as young Qubad Talabani is the deputy prime minister and both Lahur and Bafel Talabani are the co-leaders of the PUK.

Despite having a substantial number of customary signs of a demoncratic political system and commonly acknowledged types of government institutions, some scholars argue, political tension and the lack of constitution has ended up being a veritable obstruction to the political advancement and strength of Kurdistan, and has led to concocting a bound together type of political system. Scholars believe there is a connection between the nature and structure of the political parties and the political systems that have been proposed as a ruling model for Kurdistan (2).

In the last 30 years five general elections have been held. Since 2009 there were no alternative opposition parties, therefore the seats were equally divided between the KDP and PUK. However, in 2009 the Gorran (Change) Movement split from the PUK and won 25 seats while both the KDP and PUK won 57 seats. Things were not right however, as in the 2018 election Gorran only won 12 seats while the KDP and PUK won 45 and 21 seats respectively. By Gorran’s participation in the last cabinet, the three other opposition parties have been left with only 20 legislators. In all the elections, the international organizations and opposition parties claimed widespread fraud. Even in 2018, the PUK accused the KDP of violating the electronic voting process in the areas under its control.
 

Birth at the right time, raised by wrong people

The establishment of the Kurdish region in Northern Iraq was aligned with the “third wave” of democratization across the globe as the Berlin Wall had just been torn down and communist regimes had collapsed in Eastern and Central Europe. In other words, when the Kurds in Iraq started enjoying self-rule and establishing public institutions far from Saddam’s iron fist, the political climate across the globe was one of democratic gains and optimism. The last thirty-year period has also seen the most dramatic advance for democracy in the world (3). But for Iraqi Kurdistan it was a nightmare.

Following its establishment, the KRI instantly went through some difficult times such as economic embargoes and civil war in 1994, which led the region to be portioned into two administrations: Erbil (capital) and Duhok city controlled by the KDP, while the PUK announced a new government based in Sulaimani in early 1997. Thanks to “the support of our American friends”, Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani signed a power-sharing agreement in September 1998 in Washington and later pledged recommitment in the Ankara Process sponsored by Turkey, US and UK. Promises were broken, they did not put aside their rivalry and the region remained split between them. Scholars believe throughout the 1990s, the two administrations focused more on local, party, and tribal interests than on advancing a coherent Kurdish nationalist agenda in the region (4).

In early 2006 Barzani and Talabani reached an agreement over the joint administration of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). But four key ministries remained divided between them: Peshmerga (the armed forces), interior (security and intelligence services), finance and justice ministries. The first three were united later, but security and armed forces are still under partisan commanders in distinct localities, which is a serious problem for the stability and development of Kurdistan (5).
 

Post-Saddam Era

Since 2003, Kurdistan has seen progress in several fields including stability, good economic performance, for example growth in GDP and an expansion in the oil industry whose oil could now be sold without permission from Baghdad. Changes were very slow indeed, but following Saddam Hussain’s removal Kurdistan became increasingly different from most of the parts of the country (6). However, its decade-long honeymoon was over by 2014 when it suddenly faced several challenges, above all Daesh attacks, political turmoil over the presidency and economic crisis.

In the midst of all the deepening crises, the former president Masoud Barzani held a non-binding independence referendum in 2017, which eventually led to the loss of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in October 2017 when the Iraqi army attacked Peshmerga forces. Kurds once again were banned from obtaining their own state. Far from other international and regional factors, critics argue that the intra-Kurdish rivalries between the KDP and PUK forces were the main reason for losing Kirkuk, with each party accusing the other of “treason”. The referendum was not called by parliament but Barzani himself and initially had little political support outside the KDP. Researchers argue that the referendum at that time was not a realistic goal, but Barzani insisted on holding it due to “internal political competition and growing rebellion from the population against the poor economic performance and political situation” (7).

The severe economic crisis led the government to cut public salaries by 50% in 2016. Since then, the KRG severely struggles to pay the full salary of the large number of public servants, roughly 1.3 million, on time. For instance, in 2020 the KRG missed five monthly salary disbursements entirely, and cut four others by nearly a quarter. Even some PUK lawmakers suggest that the government has sufficient funds on hand from oil revenue, but these “incomes go into the officials’ pockets”.
 

The mystery of “the other Iraq”

Although after the topple of Saddam’s dictatorship there was a hope that Kurdistan could be a democratic region, the similarities between the authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and the Kurdish example have become more apparent recently. Kurdistan is not defined by democratic values, as human rights and freedom of expression have always moved backwards. It is an incontrovertible fact that the quality of democracy and respect for the rule of law have declined in recent years. For instance, the protests that erupted in early December 2020 have descended into violence as security forces used live bullets to end it, killing at least nine young protesters and injuring hundreds more. In a wave of similar protests in 2011 and 2015, dozens of protesters were killed without a single perpetrator being brought to justice.

In terms of respecting and abiding by the rule of law, Kurdistan cannot be compared even to the central government in Baghdad, let alone the developed states. While in Baghdad six prime ministers and three presidents have transferred power peacefully since 2005, the president of Kurdistan Masoud Barzani refused to abide by the two-term limit and extended his presidency twice. His nephew, the current president Nechirvan Barzani was also the prime minister for almost 20 years. His eldest son Masrour is now the premier. On the other side of the aisle, the wife, sons and nephews of the late Iraqi president and PUK secretary–general Jalal Talabani have firm control of top positions as well.

Some Kurdish officials still argue that the region is better than the rest of Iraq, but the international community’s stance is different from 15 years ago. UN representative Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert recently told the Security Council that “in the Kurdistan region as elsewhere in Iraq: transparency, freedom of expression, fundamental reforms, fighting corruption are of critical importance, as is political unity”.

In the last century Kurds have fought the Arab, Persian and Turkish governments for freedom, self-determination and democratic rights. Only the Kurds of Iraq gained some sort of independence from their enemy, but they now struggle against two Kurdish families whose greed, power and wealth make them a real danger not only to those principles they once fought for, but to the existence of the only Kurdish government on earth.

So, who is leading this charge towards authoritarianism?

It is a complicated story and also unimportant to many researchers and decision-makers in the world, considering the numerous long-term issues in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. Nevertheless, Iraqi Kurdistan deserves special attention as the region unofficially represents nearly 40 million Kurds across the globe. The Kurdish cause has a direct influence on several issues in the Middle East, especially in Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria where Kurdish land and people were divided among them 100 years ago by the Treaty of Lausanne (8).
 

The Barzani Clan

Barzan is a small region near the capital city of Erbil. The Barzanis have inhabited this region for centuries. Sheikh Abdulsalam Barzani, an Islamic religious leader, is considered to be the first one to lead a Kurdish rebellion against the Ottoman Empire in early 1900s. He fought the Ottomans for a few years until he was captured and executed in Mosul just five months after the start of the First World War in 1914. His brother, Sheikh Ahmed, who is the architect of Barzani rule, also fought the Iraqi army in the 1930s. However, the most prominent figure of the Barzani clan, and probably in all of Iraqi Kurdistan, is Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the younger brother of both previous Sheikhs. He was born in 1903. In 1946 he established the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). He led a Kurdish rebellion against Iraqi regimes during the 1940s to the early 1970s. Barzani was the president of the party until his death in an American hospital in 1979.

Mustafa Barzani was forced by the Iraqi army to leave the country for Iran, where he helped Kurdish nationalists under Qazi Muhammad’s leadership to declare the Republic of Kurdistan in Mahabad, supported by the Soviet Union. Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1946, the Iranian forces defeated Kurdish rebellion and Qazi Muahammad was hanged along with his brother and several others. As both Iraq and Iran saw Barzani as an enemy, he took refuge in the Soviet Union. Mustafa Barzani and thousands of his followers spent a decade in the Soviet Union where most of them were provided with education, jobs and some military training until their return to Iraq in 1958. According to Russian KGB documents, the Soviets took advantage of their close ties with Barzani to disturb the Western interests in the Middle East.

Soon after leaving the Soviet Union, Mustafa Barzani attempted to get help from the U.S to fight the Iraqi army as he demanded autonomy for Kurdistan. He also tried to give his two sons Idris and Masoud some authority within the KDP. That was a milestone in the KDP’s history when some progressive and leftist intellectuals noticed Barzani’s attention to assert his full power over the party. These progressive minded intellectuals were known as the “Politburo Wing” led by Marxist Ibrahim Ahmad and his-son-in-law Jalal Talabani.

They were right; Mustafa Barzani cemented his clan’s uncontested power over the KDP. Hence, following his father’s death, Barzani’s son Masoud became the leader of the party. Since then, Masoud Barzani has been re-elected without a single challenger to the top position. He also chose his nephew and son-in-law Nechirvan Idris Barzani as his deputies and his eldest son Masrour is the third most powerful official among the KDP.

The immense role played by the Barzanis in the Kurdish rebellion against various enemies during the last century makes them the most powerful political dynasty not only in Iraqi Kurdistan, but also in Kurdish parts of Turkey and Syria. Reports claim that the Barzanis have monopolized most commercial activities in the region, amassing a huge fortune. In agreement with the fact that the Kurdish region remains among the most corrupt nations in the world, the Barzanis were accused of spending a $47 million USD on two mansions in California.

In contrast to their wealth and fortune, which is very secret, the Barzani’s monopoly in politics is crystal clear. By keeping the presidency and premiership in the hands of his son and nephew, Masoud Barzani still remains the “real boss” and mastermind of the decision-making process. In 2013 he refused to abide the law and forced the regional parliament to extend his expired term. In 2015 he had the same idea, but this time the move created chaos in the region as opposition parties resisted his will. That moment in the history of Kurdistan was indicative of which path Barzani was choosing? Unsurprisingly, he chose the path of the most autocrats by shutting down the parliament and blocking its Speaker from entering the capital city of Erbil.

Masoud Barzanis’ legacy was shattered in that time, but his leadership in the fight against ISIS militias between 2014 and 2016 prompted a surge of patriotic support for his clan, and thanks to his lead in the failed independence referendum in 2017, he once again emerged with renewed popularity among pro-independence Kurds.
 

The Talabani Clan

Unlike the Barzanis, the Talabani’s linage does not have such a long history. It produced only a few prominent figures. There is no specific political or social movement that has been under their influence other than some social figures including the famous poet Sheikh Riza Talabani (1835- 1910). Their influence started with the rise of young Jalal Talabani in late 1940s when at 14 he joined the KDP. Talabani “rose to the top through a mixture of determination, guile and good luck”. As law graduate and fluent in Kurdish, Arabic, Persian, English and French, Talabani soon found Mustafa Barzani as a conservative and tribal man who cared more about his clan rather than building a democratic Kurdistan. In his long interview, which is published as a book, Talabani did not mention his clan background and only referred to his personal ambitions for politics and Kurdayetî (Kurdishness) (9). He is called “Mam Jalal” (parental uncle) among Kurds.

Despite their age difference (roughly 30 years) Talabani’s disagreement with Mustafa Barzani gradually increased, when at last the collapse of the Kurdish movement under Barzani’s leadership in 1975 led Talabani and six of his young intellectual friends to finally separate and establish the PUK in Syria. Kurds at that time were in despair following the Algiers Agreement, in which Iran halted its support for the Kurdish rebellion in exchange for Iraq’s concession of the Shatt-Al-Arab waterway.

Talabani was the first and the last Secretary-general of the PUK. Even when he was elected as the First Kurdish president of Iraq in 2006, he did not leave the PUK’s top position to his friends in Kurdistan. That was one of the reasons behind Nawshirwan Mustafa’s resignation from the PUK, who in 2009 founded the Gorran Movement that has become the largest opposition party ever since.

In late 2012 Talabani suffered a stroke, which led him to stay in Germany for medical treatment until his death on October 3rd 2017. No one was elected to his position in the PUK, and even his wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmad decided that no one should ever be elected as the Secretary-general of the PUK again. Therefore, in their late general conference the PUK decided to change the name of the PUK’s “Secretary-general” to “co-leader” in order to keep balance among the family and elect Talabani’s son Bafel and his nephew Lahur while Talabani’s second son Qubad served as the KRI’s deputy prime minister for a second term.

The PUK once founded in protest to the Barzani’s control of the KDP, has now shared striking similarities to its rival as the Talabanis have uncontested power over the party. Nowadays, they are like two peas in a pod.
Some critics thought the tension between them would weaken democratic standards in Kurdistan. But ironically, the opposite was worse as their tight control of power left no breathing space for real democracy (10). Other scholars argue that PUK’s internal conflicts, especially after Jalal Talabani’s withdrawal from political life in 2013, emboldened the Barzani grip on power (11).
 

A New Era: zero tolerance to outspoken people

Over the last three decades, the KRG has been criticized and condemned by international human rights groups and media watchdogs for killingtorturing and arresting journalists, political activists and protesters. But matters have gone from bad to worse, since Masrour Barzani (the third generation of Barzanis) became the prime minister in 2019. His tribal and conservative background plus his roles as chief intelligence and top security officer in the region made him a threat to the already falling democratic standards. Under Masrour’s leadership, there is now zero tolerance to critical voices and decent people who are fighting against corruption, nepotism, repression and social injustice in the region.

In the demonstrations of last December, dozens of protesters were killed and many more injured. Two dozen journalists and protest organizers still remain behind bars without legal charges brought against them. The majority are put in secret prisons in Erbil and Duhok where the armed forces are under direct control of the Barzanis. Major opposition media outlets are shut down in Sulaimani and Erbil, where around 50 foreign consulates are operating but are not raising concerns about the situation. Even the lawmakers with legal immunity are not protected from criticizing PM Barzani. The immunity of opposition MP Soran Omar was lifted by the KDP faction following Omar’s critical comments accusing PM Barzani of dominating every sector in the region, including armed forces, major banks, media industry and of course oil and gas sectors with massive revenues. The PUK’s forces also arrested several former MPs following their call for mass protests in Sulaimani.
 

Kurds love democracy, their leaders don’t

Kurds are actively fighting Barzani and Talabani’s dominance, nepotism and corruption, but the decent and powerless people cannot afford to continue the battle. There are many wealthy individuals who have unconditional loyalty to both parties because their only reason to be rich is their support of both political parties.

Kurdish people love democracy, freedom and fair elections. They fought for those values and principles for almost a century. More than 90 percent of them participated in the first election in the early 1990s when there was hope to build a better future. But now, that hope is fading swiftly. The turnout in the last election in some areas was under 50 percent. The opposition parties and a handful of independent media outlets are all fading in recent years. Under the rule of the two powerful clans, independent journalists and political opponents are killed or put in prison for the crime of criticizing the wrongdoing of powerful elites.

The proverb “Kurds have no friends but the mountains” should be proven wrong this time as the Kurdish semi-independent state is struggling to become a democratic region that can inspire Kurds across the globe. Western states should compel their Kurdish “allies” – the Barzanis and Talabanis – to not use violent repression and heavy-handed policies to deal with anti-government protests and opposition voices, and to stop arming the security forces loyal to the clans and not the land of Kurdistan.

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