How Iraqi Kurdistan’s Opposition Movement Lost Its Groove
Honar Hama Rasheed
Since the death of their founding father this year, Iraqi Kurdistan’s oppositional Change movement has not stood as strong as it once did on controversial issues. Party faithful are asking: why the silence?
The funeral procession of Change movement leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa, in May this year. (photo: بريار نامق)
For many young Iraqi Kurdish voters, the local party known as the Change movement was a badly needed breath of fresh air on the political scene here. The party, also known as Goran, campaigned on an anti-corruption platform, and tended to be more liberal than many others.
But recently there has been dissatisfaction within the Change movement ranks. A few days ago, a number of prominent members of the party sent a joint letter to the party leadership. In it they said that while the Change movement’s recently deceased leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa, was able to create a storm in a tea cup, “the new leaders of the party, who replaced him, are more likely to return any storm to the teapot from whence it came”.
There have also been demands that Omar Sayed Ali, the general coordinator of the Change movement, resign.
But mostly the criticism, and the message, has been about one thing: The Change movement had lost its guts and seems unable to take a firm stand.
Supporters want their politicians to raise their voices on problems like the financial crisis and the referendum. But, they say, right now the silence is deafening.
The Change movement is the youngest political party in Iraqi Kurdistan. It only started political activities around eight years ago, formed as a breakaway party from one of the two major parties in the region, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Still, the message has been popular and the Change movement managed to become the second most popular party in the Kurdish parliament after the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, in recent elections. Despite its political popularity though, the Change movement does not have the same military strength that the PUK and KDP do.
Critics of the Change movement say it should be using its political sway to make a difference and that previously, clever manoeuvring by Mustafa helped with this. But now, they say, it only has the same impact as smaller and more marginalized parties do. Some are saying that the party has become more ineffectual after the death of Mustafa in May this year.
People were particularly upset about the way the Change movement handled the referendum on Kurdish independence held in September. The party flip-flopped several times on whether the referendum should be held and whether their adherents should participate. Finally, the party said that their followers should vote based upon their own consciences. And on the day of the referendum Sayed Ali said that he voted “yes” to independence.
“The current leadership of the Change movement just kept changing their position with regard to the referendum,” confirms Hoshyar Abdullah, who was until recently the head of the Change movement bloc in the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad. “In 2010, Nawshirwan Mustafa opposed the region’s Constitution and he fought against it being presented in parliament. He was a very clever politician and played the game extremely well to achieve his aims.”
However, Abdullah believes that the current leadership of the Change movement is not at good at this game as Mustafa was. “They changed their stand regarding the referendum several times and ended up playing no significant role in the process. The result is that Kurdistan is in a dangerous position today,” he commented. “If the Change movement continues with these policies it is going to continue to weaken.”
The Change movement could have taken advantage of the situation after the failure of the referendum on independence, suggests Aram Ahmad, a writer and activist who is a vocal critic of the party on local social media. “They could have formed a delegation together with the Kurdish Islamic parties and with other parties such as the one started by Barham Salih, and they could have gone to Baghdad and presented themselves as an alternative to those other parties,” Aram argues.
After the referendum on independence and the ensuing loss of Kurdish territory following federal government interventions, the KDP and PUK were seen by many as the villains who had done the deal with Baghdad that saw the territory ceded. The criticism of what is seen as the Change movement’s weakness and inability to act has translated into more action against the current party leadership. Sources inside the Change movement say invitations have been sent out for members to convene, in order to hold internal elections. Previous proposals to hold these internal elections had been postponed at Mustafa’s request because he felt that conditions were not ripe for the process. But this meeting is now slated for December; it would allow a new party leadership to be elected. It could also have members voting on the major issues in the Kurdish region and deciding what kind of position they want to take, with that leading to clearer policies.
“If these internal elections are not held, the Change movement is doomed,” says party member, Adnan Othman, also a critic of the path the Change movement is currently on. “It won’t have the strong influence it once had.”
Obviously, some members of the Change movement do not agree with the criticisms being levelled against them.
“We have responded to the protesting voices and we have taken their concerns and their observations into consideration,” Jamal Mohammed says. “We are working to implement their demands.”
Mohammed admits that some of the criticisms are warranted and that the Change movement did not react as it could have. “This is a popular movement and the criticisms levelled against us are sincere and well intentioned,” he adds.
“It is true that some of the Change movement’s positions did not reflect the will of the people,” Mohammed Ali, another senior member, told NIQASH. “But conditions in the Kurdish region made it difficult to declare all positions.”
“All of the foreign delegations that visited Kurdistan after the referendum, and after the deterioration of relations between Kurdistan and Baghdad, met with us too and they told us we should support the government,” Ali explained. “But this patience is only temporary and the Change movement will not be able to give the government that many more chances – they have left all the crises of the past four years unresolved.”
Ahmad Hardi, a well-known writer and poet and a close friend of the late Mustafa, also concedes that critics of the Change movement have a point. “After Nawshirwan Mustafa’s death, they have not been able to pull themselves together and fill that leadership vacuum,” he told NIQASH. “The Change movement currently has a lot of political cards they could play against the KDP and the PUK. They could coordinate other political parties and they could mobilise their followers - but strangely enough, they have not.”
Supporters of the Change movement continue to hope that the party may regain its power; they want their politicians to raise their voices on problems like the financial crisis that is still hurting many ordinary residents in the Kurdish region and against the failed referendum. But, they say, right now the silence is deafening.
One thing is clear: In eight months’ time, when elections are due to be held in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Change movement will either be punished or rewarded for whatever it does next.