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Regime Change Please:
Shared Desire Brings Together Unlikely Allies In Iraqi Kurdistan

Histyar Qader
A new alliance is causing political upset in Iraqi Kurdistan and will compete in upcoming elections. But the new partners have a chequered history and mainstream politicians have no respect for the challengers.
1.02.2018  |  Erbil
Pick your colours: A line up of party flags in Iraqi Kurdistan. (photo: حمه سور )
Pick your colours: A line up of party flags in Iraqi Kurdistan. (photo: حمه سور )

The have very different ideologies. But now three occasional foes in Iraqi Kurdistan will compete in upcoming elections as allies.

The Change movement and Iraqi Kurdistan's Islamic group of parties have often worked together; they are both best described as opposition parties in the semi-autonomous northern region’s parliament. They’ve been agreeing on things since 2009 even while the political parties with the power, money and military means are still the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP.

The newcomer to this election campaign is the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, an alliance founded by Iraqi Kurdish political heavyweight, Barham Salih. The latter used to be very senior within the PUK until around a year ago. He recently announced that he would start a new party in early October. All signs indicated that, just as the Change movement challenged the PUK when it was formed by a former senior, dissenting member of the PUK, Salih’s alliance will also challenge the PUK.

If they win the necessary votes, then let them enjoy power. But they should be prepared to accept the results of the elections, whether they win or not.

Recently the three “opposition” parties decided they would compete in upcoming regional elections, which should take place sometime in 2018, together. Salih has said that in doing this, the group’s ambition is to change the ruling system in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“The best place to be, in order to make a change, is in power,” says Ribawar Karim Mahmoud, a professor of political science and the spokesperson for Salih’s new alliance, which is also known as the CDJ. “But we do not intend to expel anybody,” Karim noted, adding that in terms of politics, Salih no longer has any ties to the PUK.  

Still, to some long-time observers, the new coalition to try and change dynamics here is a little odd. The three different groups involved have some marked differences.

The Change movement is seen as a more popular party and the Islamic parties are obviously religious in their leanings. Meanwhile the CDJ has yet to make a real impact and is still perceived by many voters as an opposition movement within the PUK.

A spokesperson for the Islamic parties, Salim Koye, says that the different political parties did not talk about the minutiae of their individual manifestos. The main thing was a shared desire to make a change, he said.

“We welcome anyone who wants to implement reforms, even if they are secular,” Koye told NIQASH.


A Kurdish boy and his bike carry party flags. Picture: Hama Sur


The PUK and KDP have been in charge here for 27 years, Koye continued. “The people should try our administration for just four years,” he suggested.

The three parties in the new alliance were not always so close. In 2009, Barham Salih was the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan and a member of the PUK. The Change movement and the Islamic parties were in opposition to his government. In 2011, the two latter parties supported anti-government demonstrations and they called in the region’s prime minister, Salih, for questioning in parliament. The ensuing session lasted ten hours.  

“At that time, we didn’t have any problems with Barham Salih personally,” insists Kwestan Mohammed, a leading member of the Change movement. “Our problem was with the system, and the mistakes and shortcomings of the government.”

For now, the two major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, the PUK and the KDP, don’t seem to be too worried about the competition. Farid Asasard, a leading member of the PUK, doesn’t think the three-party alliance is necessarily a bad thing but also does not believe it will last forever. For now, the parties are united to compete in the elections but in the future, they will change, Asasard suggests.

The KDP does not consider the alliance a rival, Ali Awni, a senior member of the KDP, told NIQASH. He commented on the odd mixture of three parties with quite different ideologies and said he hopes they don’t consider the KDP their enemy either. “If they win the necessary votes, then let them enjoy power,” he argued. “But they should be prepared to accept the results of the elections, whether they win or not.”

One of the first attacks that the new alliance made on the established parties was to send a delegation to Baghdad to hold meetings with Iraqi officials there. The meetings were supposed to help resolve the current impasse that exists between the federal government and the regional government in Iraqi Kurdistan, after the ill-fated referendum on Kurdish independence. The alliance made the trip and held the meetings without consulting with the regional government apparently.

Clearly the alliance believes it has something different to offer Baghdad than the established parties.

But Awni still was not impressed. “there are two political philosophies that apply to Iraqi Kurdistan,” he said. “The first believes that the answer to Kurdish problems lies in Baghdad, the second believes the opposite [that the answers lie in Kurdistan]. The three parties [of the new alliance] believe in the first one and we believe in the second.”

Of course, the success or failure of this new alliance can only truly be tested at the ballot box.

And not everyone is positive about that possible outcome. “This new alliance will fail because it has been born out of the same failed experience,” argues Kamran Mantak, a professor of political science at Erbil's Salahaddin University. “The alliances have changed but the same marginal characters are still leading them. In the absence of any real alternative, the voters will either be reluctant to participate at all in the election, or they will vote for the status quo.”

As everybody knows, and as has been proven recently in Iraqi Kurdistan, democracy and the results of elections may not count as much as who holds the power, money and military strength in the northern region.  

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