Change in the air?
A new movement is trying to break an old duopoly
AS IRAQ’S Kurds prepare to vote on July 25th for a regional assembly and a president, the buzzword is Goran, meaning change. It is also the name of a new movement that is trying to defeat—or at least to dent—the two parties that came into their own when the Kurds won self-rule in 1991, after the Americans and their allies chased Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the south and then prevented him from beating up the Kurds in the north. The elections promise to be the most hotly contested during the Kurds’ current golden era of autonomy. As Change’s campaign gathers pace, its name and logo, an orange candle on a dark-blue background, is emblazoned on buses, taxis, T-shirts, baseball caps and balloons. The movement is on a roll. Whether this translates into votes in a society where patronage and clan loyalties still largely hold sway is not yet clear.
Change says it wants to improve the lives of Kurds across the region. It castigates the corruption and cronyism of the two main parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), long a fief of the Barzani clan in the north and western parts of the region around Dohuk and Erbil; and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), run by the Talabani clan in Sulaymaniyah province to the east and in the disputed lands to the south around Kirkuk.
Change also says the two established parties have done a poor job at defending Kurdish interests in the federal parliament in Baghdad. Kirkuk, the fiercely disputed city and province which the Kurds claim as theirs, is still in administrative limbo; the Arabs who run the national government in partnership with the KDP and PUK refuse to let it go or hold a promised referendum, though the Kurds control most of the area. Change says it agrees with its Kurdish rivals on territorial goals but would be better at achieving them.
The KDP and PUK, which were once deadly foes but have shared power for the past four years, are running for the region’s 111-seat assembly on a joint list. Also in the race is an odd alliance of moderate Islamist and secular parties. There are 24 lists in all, with 11 seats reserved for minorities such as Turkomans and Christians.
Change’s leader is Nawshirwan Mustafa, aged 65, who for many years played second fiddle in the PUK to Jalal Talabani, now Iraq’s national president. But two years ago Mr Mustafa broke away, saying that a KDP-PUK stranglehold over every aspect of life had bred corruption, cronyism and nepotism to the detriment of ordinary Kurds. A host of senior officials and thousands of PUK rank-and-file have followed Mr Mustafa; many have been expelled for sympathising with him.
Popularly known as Kak Nawshirwan (Kak being a term of respect for an elder brother), Mr Mustafa uses the Wusha Foundation, a media outfit that runs a daily newspaper, a popular website and a satellite TV station, to spread his message. “It’s time for pluralism, accountability and transparency in Kurdistan,” he says. “If we want to achieve our goals in Baghdad, we must sort out our own house first.”
The old two-party establishment has responded by drafting in Barham Salih, a widely respected PUK man who is Iraq’s deputy prime minister, to head its list. If the duopoly survives, he may replace the Kurdish region’s incumbent prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani, a KDP man who is a nephew of the region’s president, Masoud Barzani, the clan’s undisputed leader. Under an agreement between the KDP and PUK, the prime minister’s job was supposed to rotate every two years but turmoil in the PUK meant it failed to produce a candidate, so the younger Barzani has stayed put for four years. A row over the issue could well break out after the election.
No one seems to think that the position of the senior Barzani is under threat as the region’s top man. He heads the most powerful Kurdish clan unchallenged, as his father did before him. In a separate ballot on the same day as the assembly vote, Kurds are likely to re-elect him.
In general, they still appreciate the longest period of peace they have enjoyed for many years, especially compared with the continuing bloodshed farther south. Prosperity has grown. The infrastructure has improved. New oil wells are being sunk. But dissatisfaction with administrative shortcomings—in essence, corruption—has been growing too. If Change gets going, the old establishment may not last for ever.