A Special Panel On the state of opposition politics in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq: Challenges and possible futures.

5 months agoANALYSIS


By Editorial Board


On the 12th June 2019, the Kurdistan Conflict and Crisis Research Center (‘KCCRC’) held an academic debate to address the state of opposition politics in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. The panel was made up of;

Dr Ja’afar, a previous member of the Kurdistan Regional Government Parliament from the Gorran Movement;
Hawjin Omar, Advisor to the Iraqi President and member of the Islamic Group of Kurdistan;
Aram Said, author and political observer.

The main points are covered by the debate are as follows:

An assessment of the current role of the political opposition in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq;
The obstacles and challenges faceplates opposition politics in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq;
The future of opposition politics in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

The debate began with a discussion on the first point, the panel’s assessment of the current role of the political opposition in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

While every dissatisfaction and criticism in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq does not enter the frame of opposition politics, political opposition is a historical concept. Theorists and critics have long argued that it is difficult for rulers to escape from authoritarianism if their power is not subject to regulatory oversight. Grave concerns and doubts have often surrounded holders of power, namely; Can power be just? Can it provide for the rights of citizens concerning their rights of freedom and equality? And can it provide for citizen's rights? These are just some of the questions concerning those who hold power. Therefore, there has always been a need for political opposition as it can challenge those in power. 

In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the development of Kurdish politics, economics, and society have been unnatural. As a result, the foundations of its political parties have also been unnatural, a state that has continued through until the 1991 Kurdish uprisings. What is meant by the term ‘unnatural’ is that the political parties in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq have not come about as a result of the political, economic and social needs of Kurdish society. All of the Kurdish parties that were founded before 1991 were paramilitary movements that were set up to challenge the oppressive acts of successive Iraqi governments and foreign invasions. Therefore, the fact that the Kurdish parties were founded on the basis of resistance, their foundation continues to be dependent upon the existence of a foreign force. Furthermore, their ability to organise is also dependent upon a foreign action. Given, this unnatural existence of the Kurdish political parties, it is thus not unexpected that the state of Kurdish opposition politics is also unnatural and that opposition forces find it difficult to adhere to the defined requirements of opposition politics. It is for this reason that it is unwise to look for a “perfect” opposition force in the Kurdish political system

Since the Kurdish uprising of 1991, there has been a constant flow of political criticism and dissatisfaction, in particular within its green controlled zone. This criticism and resentment have taken in the shape of different forms of literature, paraphernalia, and speeches that criticise the entire political structure and system of Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the state of administration, social structures, and how political parties deal with these social structures. In a magazine called Azad and later one called Rahand, these phenomena are seen as the original thinking behind opposition politics in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Therefore, without properly addressing the political, social, and economic issues that are prevalent in Iraqi Kurdistan opposition politics becomes subject to criticism.
What the Gorran movement was able to do from 2009 was to action the above issues. However, the question that faced Gorran was for how long could it remain on the same path? Or How long has it continued on that path? The answer seems clear; Gorran has failed to stay on the road that the above principles laid out.

Political opposition in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has mostly been a parliamentary opposition. If the Kurdistan Region of Iraq had a political opposition that opposed the system, then it would have campaigned for a change of the political system as a whole and not just demand reforms from the current political order. By opposition of the system, we mean an opposition force that rejects the current political system with all its components because they are unhappy with the political system as a whole and process. Another way in which a political system can operate is that a number of parliamentarians are elected and attend parliamentary sections, they form a political party and then use their position to oversee the government’s work and reveal their findings and criticisms to public opinion.  Unfortunately, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has not benefited from either of these models.

In 2009 when we (the Gorran Movement) established ourselves, we had a position we wanted to see the entire Kurdish political system overhauled. However, what the Gorran Movement is happy with today in 2011 the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party would have done for them many times over if they relinquished their position. This statement is grounded in my dealings with contacts in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Gorran Movement.

Ultimately the Gorran Movement distanced itself from the political opposition. The question arises, why did the party change its position in 2013 and enter government? Can you implement your political ideology within the government and system that it fundamentally opposes? If the position is that reform can be done within the government, then I believe it will be unsuccessful and will be an opposition force continuously moving in circles. It is important to note that in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, political activity and political dealings are not equal as they are determined by the military forces of the two main Kurdish parties rather than democracy. Hence I believe it is unrealistic to try to work for reform within a solidified and unmoving political structure.

Another area where the political opposition in the KRI failed is that instead of founding itself on knowledge, understanding and the creation of new local leaders, the opposition continuously focused on grabbing headlines through populist actions. The Kurdish opposition believed that chasing populism was its duty, but in reality, the opposition’s populist measures worked to distance the publics concentration away from self-education on the real issues. The opposition was not aware that the opposition’s success was dependent on the publics level of education and awareness of the rights. Hence, my argument is that had Gorran focussed as much on educating the public and choosing the right candidates, instead of focusing on winning parliamentary seats and numbers the movement would have been more successful and, as a result, would have benefited the lives of the Kurdish public. Hence, it was important for the Kurdish political opposition to focus on educating and informing the public because parliamentary seats alone would not alone improve the state of the Kurdish public.

Second Discussion: The causes of the failure of the Kurdish opposition and their constant state of crisis.
After 2014, the failure of the Kurdish opposition became increasingly apparent. The panel found that this failure was caused by:
1- The war against the Islamic State: The Islamic State’s entry into Iraq caused a war between the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and the extremist group that delayed the majority of the political issues in the region and gave the ruling parties a new mandate to govern.
2-The Kurdistan independence referendum: the referendum worked to transform the Kurdish political system into a dynastic system. This was also true for how the opposition parties changed their rule; they also took on more dynastic models. Furthermore, the Kurdish opposition took no position on the Kurdish referendum. For example, the Gorran movement shied away from deciding on the issue and only at the end of the campaigning process put its support behind the decision of the ruling parties to go ahead with the poll.
3- The surrender of the Kurdish opposition: this has been one of the single most damaging actions of the Kurdish opposition towards the fledgeling Kurdish culture of political opposition. For example, instead of continuing to oppose the government, Gorran decided to enter into a coalition with the government it so adamantly opposed. This phenomenon has also been true for the Kurdistan Region’s Islamist parties.
4- Death of Nawshirwan Mustafa: previously the Kurdish opposition had a symbolic leader in Nawshirwan Mustafa. Since his death, the Kurdish opposition has been left without a guiding and charismatic figure and as a consequence has hurt the opposition movement in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq significantly.
5- In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the political opposition does not confront the obstacles put before it: the political opposition in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is not far-sighted and looks for short term gain. If Gorran had not entered into government with the ruling parties in 2013, the state of political opposition in the Kurdish region would have been far more developed. Furthermore, had Gorran pulled out of the government after its ministers were excluded from the government and had it had a serious response, it would have served the party going forward.
6- Political Opposition in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is continuously losing its members, and its size and impact are becoming restricted: For example, educated and notable people leave the party or are forced to leave it. Further weakening of the party.
7- The Kurdish opposition in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has created a mix between revolutionary and civilian struggles: the political opposition campaign for regime change and make their followers believe their political slogans on this issue. However, when the movement becomes unable to achieve these goals, it works to make their supporters feel hopeless. Therefore, there is a disconnect between the movement’s stated aims and what they are able to deliver for the people. Often this results in misinformation and untruths coming out of the opposition.
8- The splintering of the Kurdish political opposition: following the 2018 elections it was apparent that between them the opposition parties in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq could not agree on a single way forward to achieve their shared goal.
9- Election fraud: Election fraud has been a major thorn in the democratic process of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. This has worked to make people disillusioned with the democratic process as a way to bring about change. For example, it was inconceivable to think that a party that was responsible for the failure of the Kurdish referendum and the loss of the Kurdish territories outside of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq could be re-elected into government with an increase of parliamentary seats. However, this was the case for the Kurdistan Democratic Party and resulted in immense feelings of hopelessness within the Kurdish public that the democratic process in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq could bring about political change.
10- The political opposition in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is only present in the Sulaimania province: a political opposition is almost non-existent in Erbil and Duhok provinces. Therefore, the scale of the operation of the Kurdish opposition is limited to the Kurdish territory controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
11- The Kurdish opposition has become tribal and based on cults of personality: all of the Kurdish opposition forces in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, be them Islamic or secular are based on tribal and dynastic models. Therefore, the opposition parties in themselves do not embody the change that they campaign for in the wider Kurdistan Region. For example, internal party politics and procedures of the opposition parties are not that different from those within the ruling political parties.
12- Silence from the educated elite and experts, who have a duty to comment and present their opinions on controversial issues. These individuals argue that they do not like to get involved in politics. The cause for this is that this class of individuals are under the control of those in power.
13- The absence of trust between voters and their elected representatives: for example, many voters voted for a number of individuals who promised to defend them and oppose the government. However, today, the same individuals are not working on behalf of voters but serving their own interests. Hence, people have lost trust in their representatives.
14- The last point is that the opposition needs to be the government in waiting:however, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the opposition politics is only a short-term project. To date, the region has not seen an opposition party take over from the governing parties.

Third discussion: The future of opposition in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq:
Serious discussion on the opposition, its challenges, its future and its obstacles began after the elections of 30 September 2018. During that period, there was heated discussion on this issue. However, serious steps were not taken so that the opposition in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq could have a unified way forward. We did not take any steps to unite and work together in our shared goal of challenging the establishment in a new way. After the election, we from the Islamic Group of Kurdistan held a high-level meeting with the Gorran Movement. In this meeting, a number of points were discussed. We told them that we were ready to work with the movement as we had done in the past. However, we set the condition that all future decisions should be taken on a united base. The Gorran’s movement’s position on the issue was clear for all to see when they decided to enter the government unilaterally. Hence, discussion on the future of opposition politics is very important. The existence of an opposition in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is important because:
The existence of an opposition force in Kurdish politics makes it clear that Kurdistan’s political system is a multi-party system. Hence, if one party fails in its attempts to oppose the government, that party should not become a reason for the failure of opposition politics as a whole.
The opposition is a mechanism for government oversight. It is power that forces the government to work within the rules and laws set out for it.
I am agreed that the opposition forces, in particular, those who worked as a united political front, did show leadership in representing those individuals who opposed the government. If we, as an opposition did not fail, then at the very least we can say that we did not reach our objectives. However, this does not mean political opposition no longer exists in Kurdish society. There is no monopoly on the opposition; it is a political concept that exists in the minds of every individual.

The crises of opposition
The crises of the opposition forces can be set out in a number of points. These are:
Internal problems within opposition parties have had an impact on party promises, programs and efforts.
An uninformed public on everyday political events and those promises that are inherent in the opposition. All the parties in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s opposition have been focused on how to collapse the current political system. As a result, their wider efforts have been a failure. Furthermore, because the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is home to a deep state, we have have been unable to inform the public satisfactorily and prepare them properly so that they can support the opposition project.
The fact there is no united opposition front with a united policy: for example the Islamist opposition, we as the Islamic Group of Kurdistan were closer to the Gorran Movement than to the Islamic Union of Kurdistan.This is evidence of the lack of unity between those parties that argue for political opposition.
No withholding of opposition funds: It is our legal right, according to the law governing party budgets for us to have an independent budget. However, over the last four years, no income has been awarded to us. So the question is, without the proper funding, how can the opposition oppose the government? Over the last four years, the Islamic Group of Kurdistan has been living off donations. This is juxtaposed to dozens of political parties who do not hold seats in the Kurdish parliament but receive significant incomes from the government. Hence, the fact that no legal guarantee exists regarding funding hurts the Kurdish opposition.
The existence of inactive opposition; In the past, we have talked more as opposition parties that we have acted. Hence, in truth, the political opposition in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq has been presented more as talkers than as parties that can act. This is an arrangement that the government enjoys, for us to talk and them to act. However, this arrangement has worked to disenfranchise people as people want to see the results and not just hear the aims.
The existence of a deep state in the Kurdish political system: In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the governing political parties have entrenched themselves deep within the civil service. Whenever you try to touch on any subject, you are immediately confronted with obstacles.
No international support for the Kurdish opposition project: In the mids of the crises engulfing the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and following the failure of the Kurdish referendum the international community decided to re-support the dominant Kurdish political parties. Moreover, they mentioned the Kurdish government by name when thanking the Kurdish people. This act alone worked to weaken the Kurdish opposition significantly. The opposition gave to high expectations to the Kurdish people, which in the end we were not able to meet.

The future of political opposition in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Following the parliamentary elections of 2018, the talk is still, what should the opposition do next? However, we have yet to find an answer to this question because we as the opposition have as yet been unable to regroup after the shock that those elations. The elections divided the opposition forces with some entering government and others remaining in opposition to spite the other opposition parties.
Hence, the future of opposition politics in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, as a united front seems to be weak. For example, currently, the Gorran Movement has become a part of the establishment and government and therefore can no longer challenge the governing parties on their record.  Further to this, the New Generation Movement, which many people felt presented hope for opposition politics, has faltered. Recent events, including threats to movement’s members, organs and parliamentarians for the movement itself has forced the party into retrenchment. The movement saw its vote share reduced by 24,000 between the elections of 12th May 2018 and those of 30 September 2018. The other new potential opposition party, the coalition of democracy and Justice led my former Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister, Dr Barham Saleh ceased to exist after the elections. Lastly, the Kurdistan Islamic Union is in a poor state. Therefore, the only party that remains in the opposition is the Islamic Group of Kurdistan. If this party continues on its current trajectory, then I will openly say that it will be unable to lead and be the sole opposition force in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s political system. The truth here is that while it is widely accepted that opposition politics began in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in 2009, we, the Islamic Group of Kurdistan have been engaged in opposition politics, through the publication of opposition media long before KNN and Rojnamai Rojnama even existed. Even with this backdrop, we are not considered as one of the deepest rooted opposition parties in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. This raises two important points; first, those individuals who have a non-Islamic political world view should widen their horizons and look to see where opposition politics truly began in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Second, we do not have a multi-party opposition force in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. This does not mean we do not want one, but that we are unable of creating such a force.

However, what is evident is that a number of the demands of the Kurdish opposition forces are being implemented in the Kurdish political system. For example, the agreement between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party includes a number of demands that we have asked for as an opposition. These requests were to amend the election law and to address the issue of decentralisation.
We did not want the Kurdish opposition to splinter; however, it is with regret that the Gorran Movement’s entry into government worked to weaken Kurdistan’s opposition front. If the Gorran Movement had not unilaterally entered negotiations with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and instead entered negotiations as part of a wider united opposition front, then I believe we could have increased out gains in this new government. Furthermore, we could have applied more pressure on to the Kurdistan Democratic Party to try to weaken their monopolisation on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The blame for this does not solely lay at the door of the Gorran Movement, but also that of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.  Following the death of Jalal Talabani, the party was unable to counter the  Kurdistan Democratic Parties efforts to resolve its outstanding issues with the Gorran Movement.  Hence, the fact that the Gorran Movement joined a coalition with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, opposition politics and its future suffered significantly in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.


The Opinion of Audience Members
Dr Abid Khalid - Expert in constitutional matters
The void in respect to opposition politics is the same void that exists in all sectors of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and that is the non-institutionalisation of opposition politics in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. If you want an active and effective opposition to exist in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that does not weaken at the death of one party, then the opposition must be institutionalised. The institutionalisation of politics, including the opposition, can only be achieved through legal mechanisms, a new budget, a new culture of opposition should be bred into the public conscious. Hence, our opposition or government opposition is not systemised oppositions but are only temporary oppositions.
In all political systems, three foundations are worth discussing and opposing, and these are:
The shape of the state requires opposition: for example until 2003 the shape of the Iraqi state was opposed by the Iraqi Kurds and many other Arab groups. However, after the collapse of the former regime in 2003, the opposition to the shape the Iraqi state vanished. This opposition more often takes the shape of armed struggle. In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq do not have this form of opposition as we want the current shape of our state to continue. Moreover, we actively work to improve it. Hence, there is widespread agreement on the continuation of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Other forms of opposition that do not take issue with the shape of the state. In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, there is minimal opposition to the shape of the state. Hence, there is agreement that there should be no challenge to the constitutional shape of the state. While there have been challenges, both armed and civilian to the political system in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq since 1991 not have been successful in causing the system to collapse.
An opposition that has a program and plan: this is an opposition that fights within the system for reform and pushes policy objectives. Therefore, this opposition does not have an issue with the political system or the shape of the state but take issue with those at its helm. One of the issues for the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is that those with opposition to the Kurdistan Democratic Party to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s governance have largely failed to challenge their monopoly because the opposition is not institutionalised. Instead, opposition politics has taken a tribal form.
Hence, it is important for opposition politics to take an institutionalised form in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Opposition parties in the past have not taken any steps to address the issue of the institutionalisation of the Kurdish political opposition. Instead, the opposition has to date only presented a temporary challenge to power in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq for future political gain.
Regarding a budget for the opposition, it is wrong for opposition partied to look to government to give them financial assistance. Instead, these parties should look inwards for donations. Economic dependence on the force you are trying to oppose and topple only works to strengthen it further. Therefore, what we see in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is that the opposition forces do not sacrifice themselves in order to challenge the government. Instead, they have made themselves a stakeholder in the very government they want to challenge, and with this, they have strengthened the dominant parties.

Abdulla Mala Nuri - Former Gorran Member of Parliament
In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, the line between government and opposition is not clear. Hence, we need to begin by having a definition of government so that we can then define the role of opposition. We in 2009 tried to become an opposition, but we did not succeed. I believe we failed because we were unable to reach our aims and objectives in this regard. Between 2009 and 2019 and when Gorran entered into government a number of political, economic and social issues occurred int he Kurdistan Region of Iraq but no opposition forces including the Gorran Movement could present one of these issues as a general case. For example, the question of the constitution we always came into conflict with the Kurdistan Democratic Party because they always took our issue with the constitution as an issue with the Barzani family and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. This reaction from the Kurdistan Democratic Party always blocked our path to try and get reforms in this area. Hence, since 2009, the only thing that has occurred is the opposition has transited from media opposition to opposition within parliament. However, the results have largely remained the same. That is why we, as the Gorran Movement, cannot call ourselves the opposition as we failed to address any of the key issues facing the Kurdish people.


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