In Iraqi Kurdistan the political opposition is the same as the ruling coalition. The current government of the semi-autonomous northern region was formed thanks to an agreement between five major Kurdish political parties active in the area. These are the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, the Change movement and two Islamic parties. The coalition was broad based and was voted into life by the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament in June 2014. But the consensus has only managed to last a year – now things are looking rather shaky again.
All of the parties in power have long been in conflict with one another; this is the first time they've managed to form any kind of consensus government all together. And now the straw that looks likely to break this fractious political camel's back is the debate around whether Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani should still be in power.
We are in the government. But we have no real power.
Other big problems include the region's financial crisis – which has meant that locals haven't been paid their salaries and this in turn is causing a number of serious economic problems as well as protests – as well as water, power and fuel crises and the ongoing security crisis caused by the extremist group known as the Islamic State.
The Iraqi Kurdish government seems hamstrung. For example, almost all of the parties in power have been emphasising their desire to combat corruption and to increase transparency in regional governance. But up until now, not one single minister has been questioned by Parliament.
As Fakhraddin Qadir, the secretary of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament and a member of one of the Islamic parties in the local Parliament, told NIQASH: “Unfortunately what we have seen lately is this: When members of the Parliament wanted to question ministers in the government, they were stopped from doing so - one way or another. As a Parliament, we wanted to play our role properly but the issue of the Kurdish presidency is having an impact on every other issue.”
Through the various media they sponsor and via various officials, each of the five parties in power is blaming the others for political problems and criticizing the Iraqi Kurdish government – even though they are actually part of it themselves.
“Our participation in this government is a formality,” explains Aso Mahmoud, a senior member of the Change movement based in Sulaymaniyah. “The real power is in the hands of the KDP and the PUK – and most specifically, in the hands of the KDP.”
Although Change movement members occupy senior positions in the Iraqi Kurdish government, Mahmoud says that, “this government has thwarted all of our plans for reform”.
The Change movement was elected on an anti-corruption platform and, as a breakaway from the PUK, were an opposition party since their formation.
“There's no Cabinet of ministers in this government,” Mahmoud continues. “Instead there are three important commissions – the economic commission, the oil and gas commission and the investment commission - and several councils. And each is headed by a member of the KDP. Additionally the government never holds its sessions or meetings on time and they are trying to abort these meetings as well.”
Another of the smaller parties in the coalition, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, says that it is just participating in the region's administration. But they are not actually sharing any power, they complain.
“We have ministers in the region's government but the ministries employees at lower levels are all from the two ruling parties [the KDP and the PUK] who have been in power for over 23 years,” says Samir Salim of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, adding that his party is being criticized by it's supporters because it has no real power and does nothing.
Asked why his party doesn't simply withdraw from the government, Salim explained that anyone who did that would be blamed by voters for interfering with the status quo. “However when the time is right, we'll take another position,” he added.
“The PUK doesn't consider itself an opposition party,” says Saadi Ahmad Bira, a senior member in the PUK and one of its strategists. “And as a party we don't believe that any other party deserves to run the region, more than we do. When we defend the law, it's not because we are in the opposition. It is because defending the law is in the interests of the Iraqi Kurdish people,” he argues.
Bira also mentions the issue of the presidency. The PUK is in the middle of negotiations on the subject but, he says, “there are attempts to paralyse the government and the Parliament.”
Meanwhile the KDP, arguably Iraqi Kurdistan’s most powerful party of which President Massoud Barzani is a member, has its own complaints. The parties that criticise us were not successful in elections, says Mahmoud Muhammad, a senior member of the KDP. “So they're blaming us for everything. And anyway they have one foot in the government and the other in the opposition - that is a negative thing,” he concludes, that makes legislating very difficult.
“The ministers and MPs have two options,” Karman Mamand, a university professor who specialises in political law at the region's Koya University, tells NIQASH. “They should either be happy to work in the Parliament, to vote, and to continue to practice their democratic rights and undertake the work of government. Or they should resign and leave the government to get on with it.”
As for the voters of Iraqi Kurdistan, they remain confused. They are unsure who to trust because each party criticises the other, claiming it is not responsible for any of the region's problems, all the while maintaining their government positions with the power and privilege that entails.