Kurdish leaders are drunk with power
by Michael Rubin
Daily Star (Beirut)
July 1, 2009
On June 12, Iranians voted for a president. While the Islamic Republic may not be a democracy, its leadership has always looked to the polls to bestow popular legitimacy. Ayatollah Ahmad Janati, chairman of the Guardian Council, for example, said just two days before the election: "The enemies have always tried to question the legitimacy of the regime by trying to reduce public participation in elections ... The people must blind the eyes of the enemies by vast participation in elections." Iran's desire for elections, however, does not extend to accepting their results. Outraged, millions took to the streets across the country, some chanting "Death to the Dictator."
Iranians, however, may not be the only ones to take to the streets to protest election fraud this summer. On July 25, Iraqi Kurds will vote in long-delayed regional elections. For the first time, the major political figures - Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Massoud Barzani and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader, and Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani - face serious local opposition.
In the wake of Kuwait's liberation in 1991, Iraqi Kurds rose up against Saddam Hussein's tyrannical rule. Rather than allow Saddam's helicopter gunships to massacre the civilian population, the United States, France, Turkey and Great Britain created a safe-haven in northern Iraq. The following winter, Saddam withdrew Iraqi officials from what would become Iraqi Kurdistan, believing he could starve the Kurds into submission. It did not work. The Kurds organized elections. Almost a million people voted. Barzani edged out Talabani, 45 to 44 percent, with smaller parties splitting the remainder. Power sharing was not always smooth: Both leaders like to command; both became addicted to power. So long as Saddam remained a threat, Kurds tolerated abuses. Since Saddam's fall, however, impatience at the failure to reform has grown.
While the Kurdistan Regional Government could once describe itself as a democratic beacon in the region, today such depictions lack credibility. Seventeen years after its first election, Iraqi Kurdistan is at best as democratic as Egypt or Iran, and worst akin to Syria or Tunisia. Corruption is rife. Barzani uses the government budget as a family slush fund, for example donating hundreds of millions of dollars from public coffers to allow a relative to win a 2007 bid to operate an Iraq-wide cell phone company. Few profitable businesses - oil, finance, industry or trade - can operate without either silent partnership with or outright payment to the Barzani or Talabani families.
Nepotism is also rife. Barzani, for example, appointed his son to head the region's intelligence service, the dreaded Parastin, which Amnesty International has accused of torture. While free media have become an engine for democracy in the rest of Iraq, the Kurdish security services threaten, harass, and in some cases even kill independent journalists.
The people of Iraqi Kurdistan say they have had enough. Noshirwan Mustafa, Talabani's one-time deputy, has joined the former KDP secretary general to form a rival election list. Two prominent Islamic parties have joined with secular counterparts to create an additional reform list. Both challenging lists are polling well.
Barzani and Talabani are worried. Rather than allow open election lists as in the rest of Iraq, the Kurdish leaders insist that party lists be closed, a way of preventing voter repulsion at examples of nepotism or those known to be abusive of power. As the rival lists, the Change List and the Service and Reform List, have gained traction, the Kurdish security forces have threatened and roughed up opposition candidates. Party officials have told apolitical bureaucrats that they will lose their jobs if they do not support Barzani and Talabani. There is widespread belief that KDP and PUK officials have compromised the Independent Higher Election Commission's regional offices after KDP security forces visited and, in some cases, arrested opposition candidates within hours of their filing theoretically confidential candidacy papers.
As has the Islamic Republic's leaders, Iraqi Kurdistan's leaders speak of democracy, but have become drunk with power, and disdainful of public accountability. As in Iran, Kurdistan Regional Government officials have amassed vast fortunes inconsistent with salaries. Today, ordinary Kurds refer to Barzani, his nephew, and his sons, as "little Saddams." Actually, "little Rafsanjanis" might be as accurate. As in Iran, Iraqi Kurdish officials have also worked to constrain independent monitoring which might report on intimidation and interference before election day.
As a consequence of all this, it appears that the Iraqi Kurdish people seek change. What remains to be seen, however, is if Iraqi Kurds will stand up for freedom and liberty as have the Iranian protestors, and if the Iraqi Kurdish security forces will, like their Iranian counterparts, use the point of a gun and midnight roundups to disenfranchise a deserving people.
Michael Rubin, a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.