Erbil, Iraq- During the 2013 parliamentary elections in Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani did not hesitate to uncover his party’s desire to become the Kurdistan only ruler; ending the decade-long coalition government with historical rival the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
In multiple occasions, Barzani said: “the Strategic Agreement with the PUK ended per se.” These words came out from the top Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) official, the vice president and second strongest man of the Party. In fact, after the 2013 elections when the KDP came out as the biggest winner of the elections, it did ended the “Strategic Agreement” tradition which was the double party coalition cabinet with the PUK.
The equal partnership ended when the PUK failed to take back the second position from the Change Movement (Gorran).
However, the KDP has long been trying to become a decisive ruler of Kurdistan and it has achieved that thanks to break of the PUK and Gorran. What came after that should concern everyone in Kurdistan and the West.
After October 2015, the KDP has adopted a zero tolerance policy in Duhok and end of “soft” treatment with anyone who appears to be critical in Erbil. In October 2015, the KDP forces denied access to Kurdistan Parliament Speaker Yusuf Muhammad just because he was trying to do his job as the speaker to amend presidential law. The KDP has expanded its surveillance system by recruiting more people which led to deteriorating the terrible budget deficit. The surveillance mostly targets domestic rivals and civil society activists. All these happened after October 2015. Here is what else happened after October 2015.
In Duhok, two journalists were killed, but no perpetrator found in either cases. Under huge pressure, several groups of journalists working for non-KDP TV channels were forced to resign and many others receive death threat via SMS. The work of almost all NGOs not affiliated with the KDP is suspended in Duhok, especially NGOs working on political issues, and corruption.
In Erbil, the NRT TV main office was closed and the reporters who were working there expelled to Sulaymaniyah. After few month, under the pressure of the foreign diplomats, the NRT TV resumed its operation but the reporters are experiencing difficulties in dealing with public institutions. In general, the non-KDP journalists are under surveillance and some of them are adopting a self-censorship technique by not reporting about “sensitive” issues such as Barzani’s presidential term, corruption, and security issues.
The situation for the NGOs and civil society activists are even harder. The KDP does not allow the NGOs to conduct any activity without prior permission from Asayish [Kurdish security forces affiliated with the political parties]. This is a total violation of the 2011 NGO law approved by parliament. The Asayish has warned all hotel owners in Duhok and Erbil not to allow any activity without prior permission from the Asayish.
On November 20, the Asayish forces stormed the lobby of one of Erbil’s fancy hotels and prevented an activity sponsored by an Erbil-based NGO called the Organization of Legal Concepts run by a former PUK lawmaker Sardar Harki. The Asayish has also prevented the activities of the Stop organization for countering corruption. The Stop activities are sponsored by the American-based NGO the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Member of other organizations told me that they are facing tremendous amount of pressure from the Asayish for doing regular activities. These people were terrified and do not want to be identified because that might lead to abduction and killing. They confirmed to me that the KDP has never been friendly to the independent journalists and the civil society organizations, but the situation has got harder after October 2015.
Consequently,no independent media outlet established in Duhok or Erbil so far. The independent journalists and those who are working with opposition groups in Duhok and Erbil are working with the outlets based in Sulaymaniyah. Many of these journalists left the journalism job under pressure. The other critical voices such as the religious scholars faced similar aggression.
Earlier this year, the Asayish raided one of the mosques in Erbil as the Preacher criticizing the KRG officials for the corruption. Later, several other religious leaders fired, and the decision was justified under the terrorism law and promoting violence. However, no report was found proving the claim.
Erbil is known for been under the influence of the religious scholars, especially the scholars who are not ideologists. Some of these scholars are terrorized by the KDP’s “online thugs.” Some of these people have received death threats, and some of the threats came under the name of the US special forces and the FBI. The online scams try to exploit the religious people’s inexperience in social media by faking FBI accounts and other foreign agencies. Thanks to ISIL threat, the terrorist justification is on the table of the Asayish officials against any religious leader who criticizes the system.
The KDP campaign against critical voices has a long history, especially the zero tolerance policy in Duhok. On December 6, 2005, the KDP followers stormed the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) headquarter and killed several senior members of the Party and the building was looted. The attack on the Islamic Union headquarters across Duhok repeated in 2011. The reason the KIU has been the main target in Duhok is that the KIU is the only political party that has challenged the KDP in Duhok and its voters has grown in every election. For the KDP, Duhok is the key in Kurdistan’s elections; out of 36 lawmakers of the KDP, 28 of them are from Duhok. So, the city of Duhok is smaller compared to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, but the KDP maintained its 80 percent majority in the past elections.
The more the parliament remain dysfunctional, and the political parties implement self-censorship in Erbil and Duhok, the KDP will continue its grip on power and the Kurdistan’s path toward dictatorship will reach its destination soon. Then, It will be too late to get things back on track.