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Kurdistan Region’s Uncertain Future; Leaping Toward Authoritarianism

By Kamal Chomani

As we are getting closer to the total collapse of DA’ISH [Arabic acronym for the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL], the uncertain days of the Kurdistan Region come closer. There are many domestic, regional and international issues that the Kurdistan Region should deal with after ISIL is eliminated in Iraq. The two ruling parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani have well understood the uncertainty of the KRG, therefore; they have started a baseless rhetoric propaganda for holding a referendum for an independent Kurdistan. In fact, the referendum and independence claims are nothing but leading the region toward an absolute authoritarianism.


At one of the meetings of the Council of Ministers at the end of 2015 – in the presence of the chairs of the Parliamentary blocs and the Parliament committees of Finance and Natural Resources, the Natural Resources Minister, Ashti Hawrami, Finance Minister Rebaz Hamlan and Deputy Premier, Qubad Talabani – Premier Nechirvan Barzani gave the attendees a historic confession: “In my name and Qubad Talabani, too, I say, we, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have implemented the worst kind of governance in the past 23 years of KRG’s establishment which cannot be excused anymore, let’s fix it.” This statement was revealed on 9th August by Soran Omer, a member of the Kurdistan Parliament from the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG-known as Komal) faction, who had attended the meeting.

The Kurdistan Region has been hugely divided socially; two classes exist who look at each other as the threat to one another. A very small elite who are mostly affiliated to the KDP and the PUK have become millionaires and lower class who cannot afford a decent living. reported on 1 February 2016 that according to research conducted by Rebar Jalal, MA student at the Economic and Administration College of the Salahaddin University, “there are nine billionaires whose wealth is above one billion dollars and five millionaires whose wealth is more than 400 million dollars.” Dara Jalil Khayat, head of Businessmen Chamber in the Kurdistan Region, has been quoted as confirming the research: “The research’s findings are close to the truth. However, according to our statistics, there are 8,839 businessmen in the Kurdistan Region whose wealth is above one million dollars.”

Meanwhile, according to the same research, the unemployment rate is above 20 percent, and 30 percent of the people of the Kurdistan Region live under the poverty threshold. Even though I doubt these number –I think the rate should be higher especially unemployment- but if we accept these rates, that means the Kurdistan Region lives in its worst times that its current socio-economic and political situation is a threat to its existence.

Firsat Sofi, a KDP MP, once said that “Corruption is more dangerous than DA’ISH. After his statements, on 3rd August on NRTV’s Think Twice program, he showed a letter that Masoud Barzani, de facto president of the Kurdistan Region, had sent him to support his efforts in standing against corruption. Barzani had written to him: “… I ask you to bring every corrupt individual to justice and name and shame them…”

Ever since there have been numerous reform packages by the Kurdistan Region Presidency and the Council of Ministers, however, none of the reform packages have brought any reforms so far. Henceforth tackling corruption in KR is similar to cleaning up a staircase: one has to start from the very top, this is why corruption remains untackled as senior leaders from the main two parties in the KR, the KDP and the PUK should be brought to the court.



Even though Peshmerge forces have bravely fought against the most barbaric force, DA’ISH there have been some critical failures, including defeats in Shingal, because of a lack of professionalization, disorganization, and non-nationalization.

The Peshmerge needs to be professionalized, organized and nationalized. Luckily, the ordinary Peshmerga are mostly of a national force under the command of the Peshmerge Ministry rather than controlled by the KDP or PUK.

The KDP and PUK are real obstacles to unifying Peshmerge forces. If the KDP and PUK had a genuine will to unify the Peshmerge, they could do it a long time ago; it seems unifying the Peshmerga has become an impossible task. The United States may be an influential party in pressuring the KDP and the PUK to unite the forces, however, during the war on ISIL, this was not important as the US needed troops on the ground no matter their affiliation to the parties or the government. The Divisions of 70 and 80 from the PUK and KDP forces, with Zerevani of the KDP and PUK’s emergency police, should all be incorporated into the Peshmerge Ministry. The Peshmerge should be an entirely civil force and its commanders, and members must not be affiliated with any political parties.

Most of the KDP and PUK Peshmerge commanders should be retired so as to create the chance to build a new, effective army, as the old guardians of the Partisan forces will never allow their unification.

The KDP and PUK will continue making obstacles to unifying the Peshmerge because each party has enormous economic and political interests at stake, and their long history of conflicts has destroyed every bit of trust.

The same scenarios go to for the Asayish [Kurdish security forces]. The KDP and PUK have their own Asayish and intelligence units, that should be united. This is even more complicated than Peshmerga as both Asayish have been extremely used against each other and the political decent and voices.

Oil and Gas

Oil and Gas have become a curse for the people; through oil and gas revenues the KDP and PUK top leaders have become billionaires and established a rentier patronage system which merely serves KDP and PUK interests.

Without a radical change in oil and gas policies, to serve the people of Kurdistan, KR’s stability is under threat.

Transparency is the key element into turning Kurdistan’s natural resources into a boon for the people. The oil and gas have so far benefited the two families and KDP and PUK circles, and this needs to be changed. The control of the oil and gas business by the KDP and PUK must end. Let’s fix this one, too.

The KRG signed an agreement with the UK-based Ernst and Young, in November 2016, and signed a similar agreement with Deloitte in early October to audit the region’s oil and gas processes. However, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said during an interview with Al-Monitor “Obviously, we will not allow them [Deloitte and Ernst & Young companies] to see the [text of] the agreement with Turkey.” Even if the KRG allows the company to see the deal and the company carries out the best auditing, that will not change anything from the corruption in the KRG unless the KRG puts a serious strategic plan to provide the expenditures to the public, media and the parliament. The current KRG cabinet has not had an annual budget plan or bill in the last four years, and no one in the Kurdistan Region knows how the KRG spends the revenues.

This is one of the most crucially needed reforms. If the KRG had a national Asayish force, the massacre of Shingal might not have happened. It ‘s hard to have two security forces operating in a small region: their work will inevitably diverge and conflict.

The KDP and PUK still possess their security forces that protect their interests.

Democracy will never be developed if the Asayish and Peshmerge are not united because, whenever democracy may turn against KDP and PUK interests, the Peshmerge and Asayish will be used against democracy, as we saw with the KDP describing a legal procedure to amend the Presidential Law in Parliament as a coup and threatening to fight those who will not join a political consensus in the KDP’s interests which eventually prevented the Speaker of Parliament Dr. Yusuf Muhammad from entering Erbil, who has not been able to visit Erbil since 12 October 2015 and the Parliament was paralyzed ever since.


Governance and Institutionalization

As Nechirvan Barzani said, the KRG’s reign over the past 23 years has been the worst kind of governance, and this is mainly because of a lack of institutionalization. Apart from nepotism, partisanship, tribalism and family interests, which have been the basis for distributing governmental positions, the employment of people lacking any qualifications has made the KRG institutions the most institutionalized institutions.

While the PUK and winners from other political parties in the Provincial Election in the Sulaimani province have divided positions according to their votes, this approach does not exist in Duhok and Erbil, where the KDP retains all power and posts.

As the first step, the KDP and the PUK should stop occupying and monopolizing the governmental positions and let new blood in.

The second step should be working on institutionalizing the institutions through training, workshops, courses and monitoring by the local NGOs and courts.

Let the academy work and do not affiliate it with politics. Political parties have inaugurated their professors as university presidents and deans, based not on merit but their political affiliations. Most of the professors and university employees are forced to be members of political parties, and this has to stop. A reform of higher education must be pursued but, without cutting the partisan influences in the universities, nothing moves forward.

Unfortunately, the KRG’s health system is the worst in the region. If you pay a visit to any of our hospitals, followed by going to Iranian or Turkish hospitals, you will realize the difference. People of Kurdistan do not trust the hospitals and medicine here. It is because they’ve had terrible experiences with the local health system. The KDP and PUK have tried to privatize the health sector without making any regulations for private hospitals. In a conference at the beginning of January 2017, PM Barzani clearly said that the KRG would privatize the health system, whereas according to the Iraqi Constitution the health service in Iraq is a natural right and free. Kosrat Rasul, KR deputy president, is from a social democrat party (PUK) and his party has long called for free health care for the people, but now he owns the biggest private hospital in Erbil, PAR Hospital, where the prices are as high as in a European country.

Develop public hospitals and regulate private hospitals for the sake of the patients. We can fix it if there is a will as the health system in the Kurdistan Region should be for free. The socialist system of health we have needed reform, not change.

President Barzani’s two terms in office ended in 2013, although he has managed to cling on for two more years after striking a shady deal, exploiting a loophole in the system, with his so-called strategic partner, the PUK, Barzani’s presidency was revived in an act that can only be defined as a ‘desperate measure’ to protect the families interest. However, Barzani’s post has again sparked controversy, as his tenure expired 19 August 2015. Masoud Barzani refused to step down, and that deepened the political crisis in the Kurdistan Region. It has been since then Barzani enjoys the power illegally. Without institutionalizing the political system, such acts of exploiting power will remain.

The presidency, as a new institution in the Kurdistan Region with unlimited powers, was never institutionalized, despite scores of intellectuals calling for this. Barzani deliberately prevented the presidency from becoming a national institution, and he kept using the Presidential Palace as his KDP office too. The Vice President has been unable to exercise any powers, and the public has no real idea how the presidency is run, what the structure is and who the decision-makers are on both micro and macro levels. Barzani’s foreign relations, for example, have been both dubious and unregulated; during his official visits abroad, he is regularly accompanied by his immediate family members, including grandchildren, although he has often failed to include diplomats or members of the press in his team. His foreign relations agenda is managed by the KDP’s head of foreign relations, while the KRG’s foreign relations minister acts as an interpreter to the president. Barzani has misused his presidential powers while working diligently in the interests of his political party.

Kurdistan Not Booming Anymore

Kurdistan is ‘booming’ was the KRG’s oligarchy’s catchphrase – often echoed by short-sighted foreign businessmen – over the past decade. Undoubtedly, there has been development: hundreds of hotels and skyscrapers have mushroomed in the region, the standard of living had improved in comparison with the civil war era until the end of 2014, and public services have improved to some extent.

However, this ‘booming economy’’ – or, as we call it ‘capitalism on steroids’ – hasn’t been due to the smart strategic planning of astute visionary members of the oligarchy. Instead, it has been mainly because of the billions of dollars poured into the region following the invasion of Iraq, mainly through international development programs, large-scale international money laundering and natural resources exporting – smuggling through the backdoor or by official routes.

As a result of the lack of long-term planning, mismanagement and the oligarchy’s attempt to thwart progress and divert projects for its gain, most developments have benefited a tiny gang of greedy, money-munching monsters at the heart of government, while the majority of ordinary citizens have struggled to make ends meet.

By implementing half-baked populist policies to keep the populace submissive and prolong their exclusive grip on power, the oligarchy has deliberately promoted complacency and low productivity by creating a deformed welfare state – assigning nearly 80% of the national budget to a dole scheme and rewarding their hordes of lackeys by distributing public lands, luxurious cars and lucrative salaries at the national expense.

The clientelist and kleptocratic practices of the oligarchy have paved the way for monumental failures politically, economically and regarding government performance as well as the burgeoning grievances of the populace. The oligarchy has been wielding its axe to tear apart the society (‘divide and conquer’), running a patronage system to maintain a disproportionate hold on every aspect of power and business, together with multi-million-dollar, state-of-the-art propaganda machines to launch mass deception campaigns. How many millions, for example, are being allocated from the KRG budget to the Rudaw media empire owned by the prime minister?

In conclusion, the booming economy has mainly benefited the corrupt political elite (oligarchy): many of them rapidly became millionaires and billionaires, while a majority of citizens are now seeing a booming economy with increasing calamities.

Disputed Areas, Ambiguous Future

The future of the disputed areas defined under Article 140 of the Iraq Constitution remains unclear. More than ten years after the liberation of Iraq, the KRG has failed in pressuring the central government to implement Article 140, which should have been executed by the end of 2007. Kirkuk and the other disputed areas are still not part of Kurdistan. Moreover, the KRG’s influence over Kirkuk and its outskirts is declining. The KRG and the Kirkuk Governor have been unsuccessful in maintaining stability in the city, while terrorist organizations have increased their activities in the city more than ever and the Iraqi Army’s presence in the disputed areas has also been amplified.

After the emergence of ISIL, the KDP controlled many areas, especially in Kirkuk where the KRG took the oil wells of Western Kirkuk, something that the PUK and the Iraqi Government opposes.

It is unclear how the disputed areas will be reformulated after ISIL as there will be two conflicts; one between the Iraqi Government and the KRG, and the other between the KDP and the PUK over the Kirkuk wells.

In the agreement to liberate Mosul, the KRG and the Iraqi Government have agreed that the Peshmerga should retreat to the areas before 17 October 2016. However, the future of the areas controlled by Peshmerga in 2014 is not clear.

2017 Elections

The Kurdistan Region should hold an election in November 2017 as per the existing laws. Jutiar Adil, a member of the electoral commission, told the press that elections could be held by November, eventually on November 6, 2017. He added that November 6 had been set as a preliminary date for both parliamentary and presidential elections. However, it does not seem serious as without an agreement between the political sides.

On may 2016, the PUK and the Change Movement (Gorran) sealed a deal where the KDP considered it an effort to curve the KDP’s hegemony. However, the agreement did not come into effect as soon the PUK intra-politics put the PUK at the cliff of a split. The two deputies of Jalal Talabani, Kosrat Rasul, and Barham Salih announced a wing and asked radical reforms. The other wing of Jalal Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, rejected the new wing the Decision Making Center. The KDP worked on deepening the intra-conflicts of the PUK so that the PUK cannot continue its agreement with Gorran.

The PUK and the KDP recently tried to seal an agreement or revive the 2007 so-called Strategic Agreement to divide all the positions and wealth 50 by 50, but again they did not reach an agreement as the PUK’s members rejected such an agreement and the PUK failed to be united.

Masoud Barzani announced an initiative to resume the talks so that the parties can reach an agreement, however, all the meetings have so far been futile.

All the parties are preparing for elections, but it is not clear if elections will be held.

The primary challenge to the Kurdistan Region post-ISIL will be how the domestic issues are resolved, and a radical reform plan will be regulated and implemented. If the parties do not reach an agreement on a roadmap to resolve the issues, a reform package in all the sectors especially in oil, and solving political crises, the KRG’s future may deem in a dark era as forces still own militia forces and the people are completely frustrated.

Post-ISIL will also bring Shingal (Sinjar) issue onto the tables, too. The KDP and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) conflicts have reached a peak in Shingal, the clashes of 3 March stopped, however, the two forces are still in an alarmed standoff. The KDP cannot accept the PKK’s presence in Shingal as the PKK has been able to form a special force for the Yazidis and liberate them from the oppression of the Kurdistan Region’s rule, demanding the KDP does not easily accept their self-rule. The KDP has lost legitimacy and trust within the Yazidi community. That has threatened the KDP for two reasons: first in the next Iraqi elections the pro-PKK Yazidis and the PUK may win seats in the Iraqi parliament and the KDP fears that the PKK stretches from Shingal to other areas in Duhok and Mosul, two strategic places for the KDP.

Other than the KDP, all the political sides in the Kurdistan Region, especially the PUK and Gorran, support the PKK’s presence in Shingal, this is why the KDP cannot claim the PKK’s leave.

Independence of the Kurdistan Region

There is no doubt that Independence has been the subject of a collective, national discourse since the division of Kurdistan after the First World War. Although the Treaty of Sevres promised Kurds full Independence, this was soon followed by the Treaty of Lausanne by which Kurds were deprived of their right to Independence.

Historically, the KDP led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani sought self-autonomy within the borders of Iraq. The PUK led by Jalal Talabani believed in Federalism in Iraq.

For Kurds in Iraq, the vision for Independence is different. The political parties have already accepted Federalism although they were in a position to insist on adding a clause to the Iraqi Constitution stating that, whenever Kurds want separation, they will have the right to pursue this through a referendum. Unfortunately, the Kurdish politicians in Bagdad didn’t insist on this, even though they could have done since the Iraqi entities at the time of writing the constitution were not robust enough to withstand the Kurds’ wishes.

The one who talks most about independence today is Masoud Barzani. However, he only started talking about it a few years ago. In the KDP’s discourse, independence was not discussed at its last Congress in 2010. In the latest Congress of the KDP, they changed their principles to state that they do believe in Self-Determination. For the PUK, by contrast, Self-Determination for Kurds has been one of their main mottos and principles since the foundation of the party. Masoud Barzani is misusing the Independence discourse. It is a national principle, and the possession of it belongs to all and not to a party or a leader.

Gorran, which emerged in 2009 and is supposed to be the second party now in Iraqi Kurdistan, has different views as compared to Barzani. Nawshirwan Mustafa, Gorran leader, in response to Barzani’s regular speeches about Independence, shared the view that Kurdistan should prepare itself for Independence by institutionalizing the government establishments, freedom, democracy, fighting against corruption, strengthening and unifying the Peshmerge forces and so on. After 2014 when the KRG went bankrupt, the people of the Kurdistan Region now prioritize their economy and livelihood over independence. The question is why Barzani talks about independence more than others do?

In fact, Barzani is approaching Independence in a way just to invigorate his nationalistic stance in public. In reality, it needs work – hard work – and not only remembering it during conflicts with Baghdad. The KDP has no political ideologies to bring its members around, and it has failed in every single policy, therefore; the only thing that can be effective to fool the masses is the statehood of the Kurdistan Region discourse.

In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat on January 23, 2017, when asked about measures Masoud Barzani would take in the event that Iraqi Vice President Nouri Al-Maliki is reappointed as prime minister in Baghdad, Barzani said: “I hope that this won’t happen for the sake of the Iraqi people.” He added: “I would announce the independence of Kurdistan should Nouri Al-Maliki returns to the Premiership.” That was a shock for the people of the Kurdistan Region as people said that it seems that announcing independence of Kurdistan depends on whether Masoud Barzani’s opponents take power in Baghdad or not. In response, many responded him, but Nuri al-Maliki beautifully responded him in an interview with the Kurdish weekly Awene on 31 January 2017, and said:  “Mas’ud Barzani is an authoritarian person who wants power and is making all the decisions without referring to public opinion.” Al-Maliki adds as assailing Mas’ud Barzani on announcing independence of the Kurdistan Region, saying: “How can you announce independence of Kurdistan when you have paralyzed the Kurdistan Parliament and prevent the Speaker [Yusuf Muhammad] from returning to Erbil to expand his parliamentary duties?” Al-Maliki further says: “This is politically irrational and lacks patriotism. How can a leader connect the future of a nation with someone’s return to the Premiership? How can you build an independent state based on opposing someone?”


The KRG is an essential player in the reshaping of the political maps in the region, in Syria. But it cannot continue its important role in the current domestic crises. Therefore, the KRG should work on two paths: first to make radical reforms in the political, economic and all other fields; and second to have a regional Kurdish policy, which must be structured by all the Kurdish parties inside the KRG and other parts of Kurdistan.

All in all, If we’d had real leadership in the KRG, we would have already solved all the major problems as the problems in the Kurdistan Region are mostly because we have not had strategic thinkers, unlike other parts of Iraq or Syria where the problems have turned to sectarian. Unfortunately, since our leadership has proved incapable of providing democratic, just, transparent and accountable governance, the KRG is experiencing appalling days that could eventually turn into civil unrest.

The current generation of politicians have assumed positions of power, based not on merit but mere tribal ties and family roots; hence crises inevitably occur. Worse still, they too have inherited previous generations’ terrible habits; brushing the problems under the carpet, play the blame game and treating the masses like idiots.


  • Kamal Chomani is a senior political analyst and co-founder of Kurdish Policy Foundation. You can reach him via twitter @Kamalchomani



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