Your humble columnist just spent the last four months living in Kurdistan. Although this was not, of course, my first stay in the region, a sabbatical from my university provided a good opportunity to go back to a place and people that never cease to fascinate me. I lived in Ganjan City a few kilometers outside of Erbil, and I bought a cheap Iranian-Chinese motorcycle to get around. With my trusty steed (named “Robar150”), I visited places and friends from Duhok to Sulaimani, Dukan, Koya, Shaqlawa and Ranya.
Much of what I saw reminded me of things I so admire in the people of Kurdistan. Friends who had not received a salary in six months still insisted on paying for dinner. In communities like the one I called home, Kurds, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, Turkmen, secularists, devout believers and others all live together amicably. Workers and street vendors labour long hours in the hot sun or, as winter sets in, light small fires of refuse by the side of the road to keep themselves a tad bit warmer. As a war rages less than a hundred kilometers away, Peshmerga quietly come and go from the front, keeping the region safe and allowing it a large degree of normalcy (minus all the helicopters flying overhead, of course). People remain as warm and friendly as ever.
I find that Kurdistan’s population possesses a degree of stoicism, resilience and determination that many in the West seem to have long forgotten. Perhaps this is born of the long century the Kurds endured since the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1920, or perhaps it is just in their character since long before then. The stoicism and resilience is not without limit, however, which is why Kurdistan’s various political parties need to get their act together soon.
There was a time – from around 2002 until around 2011 – when the various Kurdistani political parties acted as a fairly united front in pursuing “Kurdistan’s national interest.” While they still had many disagreements, they went to Baghdad and the capitals of the world with one voice when it came to pursuing things like revenues, security, federalism, democracy for Iraq and autonomy for Kurdistan. United in this way, they achieved some remarkable things: a constitution in 2005 that recognized their autonomy and a very decentralized, federal system for Iraq, a 17% share of Iraq’s budget, the right to keep and control their own Peshmerga forces, a secure region with a thriving economy, infrastructure and services that far surpassed those of the rest of Iraq, and the respect and cooperation of the whole international community.
This all started to unravel after 2010. Some of the causes lay outside Kurdistan, such as a Prime Minister in Baghdad intent on subverting the Constitution and recentralizing power around his office, an oil market that came crashing down two years ago, bloodthirsty jihadi extremists sweeping in from the desert in 2014, and waves of refugees and IDPs flowing into Kurdistan.
Other causes for today’s problems, however, appear very much home-grown. Gorran’s split from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) a few years ago, along with its populist rhetoric, severely destabilized a political system that was not yet even independent. The illness of PUK leader Jalal Talabani then undermined the political partnership that underpinned unity in Kurdistan (Mam Jalal got to be President of Iraq while Kak Masoud got to be President of Kurdistan), as well as depriving the political system of a much needed, skilled mediator and fixer of problems. Both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the PUK also failed to tackle corruption or open up the economy and political system to everyone, instead building a patron-client network so vast that 1.8 million of Kurdistan’s 5 million people receive their income from the government.
As the war and economic crisis that began in 2014 buffeted Kurdistan, its political parties fell ever more into acrimonious intra-party disputes and forgot about the national interest: economic growth, security and independence. The situation became so ridiculous that last week we saw PUK and Gorran members of the Iraqi Parliament vote for a budget that would cede control of Kurdistan’s oil resources to Baghdad, and for less money in return than Kurdistan would get from selling the hydrocarbons itself.
It is thus high time to mend political fences within Kurdistan. Meetings are currently afoot to do just that, and they need to succeed. As the hegemonic party, the KDP may need to compromise a bit more to assure the other parties that independence is a joint burden and achievement rather than the glory of one party or leader. The KDP will have to find ways to reassure others that revenues and power will truly be shared in Kurdistan. The other parties, and particularly Gorran, need to likewise find ways to compromise and cease the petty squabbles and accusations. They need to get behind the national interest and keep it front and center in their thinking.
The current window for Kurdistani independence (whether in the form of more robust autonomy, confederation or secession) will not remain open forever.