Kurdistan’s future looks bleak, threatened by political rifts
Hawre, 24, is struggling to make ends meet by selling sunglasses placed on a small table just a couple of yards away from Erbil’s millennia-old citadel.
Hawre’s task, like others’, has become more difficult these days as Iraq’s Kurdish region is facing economic challenges and political paralysis.
As the main breadwinner of his family, Hawre’s income is highly unstable and swings anywhere between $4, to $20 a day. That’s not much in a city where the average monthly rent is around $400.
“I don’t hate my country but it’s really difficult… They [politicians] think lowly of one another and work for personal gains. I don’t think it will get any better,” said Hawre.
Like many around him, Hawre feels disappointed. Political conflicts are threatening his tenuous livelihood.
Hawre’s words echo the general sentiment these days in the Kurdish region, long touted as an oasis of stability and prosperity in war-torn Iraq.
A little over a year ago, it was a different vibe in the air in Iraqi Kurdistan. Daesh’s rapid and shocking expansion coupled with the collapse of large portions of the Iraqi military, presented what appeared to be an unprecedented opportunity for Kurds to either push for independence or secure more autonomy from Baghdad.
But political stalemate and an economy on its knees threaten the very stability of Kurdistan.
The Kurdish government has been exporting oil independent of the central government since June, arguing Baghdad is unable to provide Kurdistan’s share of national budget. But its oil exports have not brought about the success it hoped for and it appears to be in trouble generating revenue to pay civil servants.
Economic woes touched off a wave of street protests in early October culminating in bloody clashes killing at least five. The targets were the offices of the Kurdist. Democratic Party (KDP), which is the major faction in the coalition government of Kurdistan. The KDP blamed its major partner in the government, Gorran or Change Movement, for masterminding the attacks.
In an unexpected move, the KDP expelled five Gorran ministers from the government and barred the speaker of parliament from entering Erbil.
“What we have done is implement the least of measures in an effort to put an end to the chaos,” Jafar Iminki, deputy speaker of the Kurdish parliament who also serves as a member of KDP’s powerful politburo, told Newsweek Middle East. “We don’t say our measures were legal. However, security and stability impose their own requirements. We did that to control the situation and protect people’s lives,” he added.
Internal tensions have been simmering for years but things came to a head when parties failed to agree on an arrangement regarding the fate of the powerful office of Iraqi Kurdistan’s presidency in the last few months. KDP’s leader Massoud Barzani retains the office even though Gorran challenges that under the existing law his term ended on Aug. 19.
Political deadlock and governments’ inability to pay the 1.3 million people on its payroll –one in every four Kurd is paid by the government— led to a rupture within the government.
Gorran is adamant that no breakthrough will occur until the issues are tackled head on.
“The first step is for Gorran ministers and speaker of parliament to return to their work,” Shorish Haji, a senior Gorran official told a panel during a Middle East Research Institute (MERI) forum on Nov. 5. “Powers should not be in the hands of a single individual.”
Meanwhile, many are concerned that Kurdistan might be ill-equipped to tackle the challenges it is facing.
“Our enemies have always triumphed over us because of our internal rifts,” said Ali Bapir, leader of Kurdistan Islamic Group, during MERI forum. “If we’re united internally, then we will have the immunity needed to protect us against threats.”
Internal fragmentation was a major reason Kurds could not secure an independent homeland, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
Following US-led coalition’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kurds presented a united front during the negotiations to reshape the Iraqi state. They achieved legal status as a federal region within Iraq and became a key politics player in Baghdad.
Given the existential threat posed by Daesh to Iraqi Kurdistan, many are wondering about the repercussions that internal Kurdish power struggles might have on their ability to fight the extremist group.
David Pollack, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, believes as they stand, current divisions are not going “to rip the [Kurdish] region apart.”
“It’s very self-defeating,” Pollack told Newsweek Middle East. “It damages the popular legitimacy of the government and damages the morale of the people. It’s a weakness that maybe ISIL will exploit. The Kurds will be much better off reaching an agreement.”
Back in Erbil, Hawre advertises his sunglasses by shouting, hoping to attract the attention of passersby. Occasionally someone stops and inspects the sunglasses and leaves.
“I’m thinking of seeking a job somewhere,” said Hawre with an air of despair. “And if it won’t work out then I will immigrate abroad.”