February 5, 2009
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Reform in Kurdistan region between half-baked projects, petrified power mentalities and absent Opposition (1) - By Dr Kamal Mirawdeli

Part 1: Introduction 

In 2008 through to 2009 there has been a lot of talk of reform in Kurdistan region with little impact on the reality of power or improvement or the state of injustice and living conditions of people.  The proliferation of the badly-needed but ill-defined reformist discourse, and reform projects was instigated initially by the writings of the former deputy leader of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Nawshirwan Mustafa in his website Sbey and daily paper Rozhnama.  He published a number of critical articles entitled “We and Them” in which he exposed the degree of injustice, monopolization of power and privileges by KDP and PUK and lack of the rule of law followed by a project for reform and ideas for developing Opposition in Kurdistan region.  The ideas of Nawshirwan Mustafa were echoed in a statement and then a 'project' for reform within Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) announced by a group calling themselves Democratic Change Current (RAG) headed by four London-based PUK male cadres. Both this group and Nawshirwan Mustafa have limited their intention to changes within PUK by opposing what they see as the unlimited unaccountable powers of its General-Secretary Jalal Talabani, practised mainly through his wife, children and personal advisers, and the ineffectiveness and corruption and arbitrary powers of its political bureau. RAG has called the PUK old guard to resign and give way to new blood.  The writings of Nawshirwan Mustafa and the open challenge by RAG to the PUK Old Guard rattled PUK apparatchiks fearful about losing their privileges and a period of rising tension ensued which only Talabani himself could solve or, as usual, fudge. It is well-known that for whatever reasons Nawshirwan Mustafa has been unable or unwilling to directly challenge Talabani. Both men are keen to maintain at least an appearance of valuing a friendship stretching over decades.  Talabani made two visits to Sulaymaniyah in December 2008 to deal with the issue of PUK's internal crisis and especially the reform trend instigated by Nawshirwan Mustafa. After a meeting between the two 'friends' Talabani convened his political bureau on 19 December 2008 and apparently surprised them by announcing that he would present a comprehensive reform project to institutionalize his party {PUK) and separate government powers from party powers.  According to a report by PUKmedia website (20 December 2008) Mam Jalal told them in the meeting: “We have a serious and comprehensive programme to carry out a real and radical reform in all the government and party bodies with the aim of eliminating the shortcomings and faults and speeding up the steps for the renewal of PUK and developing our various tasks.” PUKmedia also reported that Mam Jalal “reiterated that we must change PUK to the party of institutions and this should be applied to everyone from the political bureau to the lowest ranks.” Following that a meeting of PUK political bureau, as reported by Aso on 21 December 2008, unanimously approved Mam Jalal’s project . Aso newspaper quoted PUK political bureau spokesperson Mala Bakhtyar: “Adequate discussion about Mam [honorific] Jalal [Talabani]’s project took place at the political bureau and then it was unanimously supported and decided to be communicated down to all the organs of the party so that they will be committed to it and be carefully implemented.”

PUK media were quick to propagandise the importance of Talabani's project declaring that:

1.        The project is comprehensive and will provide the desired balsam for all Kurdistan region's ills and problems.

2.        It was discussed and unanimously approved by the political bureau.

3.        It will be implemented in months and special committees headed by PUK political bureau members have been formed for its quick implementation.

4.        Talabani had discussed the project with KDP and got their approval. (Head of PUK media office’s statement in the same issue of Aso)

5.       Only Talabani could present such a project, represent and lead the reform process.

It seems that the only motive for the hastily conceived and badly written Talabani' 'project' was to silence Nawshirwan Mustafa without embarrassing him too much by taking up his case for  reform himself especially his idea of separating parties' power from government power.  Nawshirwan Mustafa’s paper Rozhnama tried hard on its part to present Talabani’s project as a serious step and followed it up with a number of articles and interviews with party officials, Kurdish politicians and intellectuals. But it seems that the ‘project’ was dead-born before people even knew what it was really about. In Kurdistan region the surest way to kill any idea or project and ensure that nothing can be done is to form a party committee or committees to do the job.

Before Talabani presenting his own project, his deputy-secretary Dr Barham Salih had also presented his 'reform project' to Talabani and PUK political bureau. Dr Salih's project has not been published but he has emphasized in his report that any change must be led by Talabani himself. It is also reported by Kurdish media that the second deputy of PUK leader Kosrat Rasul has also presented his own project.

Then came the report of 'the four parties'. These are four parties participating in Kurdistan regional government and parliament along with PUK and KDP. Two of them Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party and Kurdistan Toilers’ Party are older secular nationalist Kurdish parties that were also part of the Kurdistan Front in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The other two Kurdistan Islamic Union (yekgrtuy Islami) and Kurdistan Islamic Group (komeley Islami)  are Islamic parties that emerged mainly in the 1990s in reaction to the destructive internal fighting and tribal regional politics of KDP and PUK and the unprecedented degree of poverty, starvation and social retardation resulting from their conflict and fighting. The four parties have been reluctant partners in Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in return for meager privileges mainly financial allowances and land and property for party leaders and some senior cadres. But they have had no influence on the politics and decision-making in Kurdistan region as they aslo acted as one-leader non-democratic parties and as all important decisions are taken not by parliament or the cabinet but by the joint meetings of KDP and PUK political bureaus or their leaders alternatively in Dukan (Talabani’s residence) or Salahaddin [Barzani’s residence) especially after the signing of the so-called strategic agreement between the two parties two years ago. These meetings, like the content of the strategic agreement, have remained largely secretive with only short statements published at the end of each meeting stating what the two bureaus have agreed upon. Therefore, the four parties have been unhappy for a long time and encouraged by increasing democratization of the political process in Iraq which has witnessed emergence of a strong parliament, strong government institutions and diverse oppositional groups on the one hand, and by increasing discontent and disillusion of the Kurdish street with the two dominant parties on the other, these four parties have been trying for the last two years to form a sort of alliance and presented several memoranda and proposals to KDP and PUK leaderships via various channels. In the summer of 2007 they announced that they had presented a comprehensive memorandum detailing their views of the political process in Kurdistan region and their proposals for reforming it. They have been in particular stressing the need for declaring the budget of (money illegally taken by) KDP and PUK to parliament and regulating it by a law.  But they refrained to publish their memoranda for fear of angering KDP and PUK and losing their financial aid and maybe also in the hope that discreet efforts might have more chance of success in achieving at least part of their demands. They tried also to shroud their inaction in a patriotic guise claiming that they considered Kurdish unity as a priority as if democratic opposition is antithetical to unity.

However, on 10 January 2009 the four parties took a long over-due step and published a report detailing their criticisms of the KDP/PUK leadership, KRG and political process in Kurdistan region. They addressed their report to ‘the public opinion in Kurdistan region’ and convened a press conference in Arbil to launch the report.  Contrary to Talabani’s hasty and contradictory ‘project’, their report is balanced, constructive and they emphasize the principles of democracy, legality and proper functioning of Kurdistan region’s institution including presidency, parliament and government. They also emphasize the necessity of political participation and transparency whether in terms of political relations with Baghdad or political process in Kurdistan.

It was expected that this mild report would upset PUK and KDP but no one expected that they would react the way they did. It was more the reaction of political thugs than politicians who day and night stress democracy and constitutional approach whenever they talk about Iraq and al-Maliki. But it seems that their tolerance cannot digest even the most modest idea of difference and notional challenge to their secretive authoritarian totalitarian rule. Thus they could not tolerate even one single press conference by four parties sharing their government and parliament for many years to express not a different political agenda but different views about how to bolster and activate the current institutions that represent the base ands structure of KRG political power. The most trivial ignorant justification used by the two totalitarian parties is that because the four parties have MPs and ministers in government they cannot express any different views and criticism that can mark them as Opposition!

I am going to translate, and then try to study, analyze and assess each of the reform projects mentioned above in order to paint a picture of the reality of political process and ‘government’ in Kurdistan and define a common ground  and then alternative ideas process and processes for change.


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