Supporters of the Change movement in Iraqi Kurdistan. (photo: حمه سور)
On the evening of May 12, the day of the Iraqi federal elections, gunfire broke out in the normally, relatively staid city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan. A media outlet belonging to the mostly-oppositional Change movement in the semi-autonomous, northern region, began to broadcast the news that the headquarters of the party were being attacked by members of another local political party.
Presenters on the channel said that members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, were shooting at the building because the Change movement had already expressed doubt about the veracity of the preliminary results of the federal elections, which showed that the PUK had done well.
The presenters, as well as some senior members of the Change movement, called upon supporters to come and defend the building. For some time before the situation was calmed again, things were very tense. A large crowd gathered around the building and many of them were armed – it is still common for ordinary householders in Iraq to own guns.
The PUK denied any wrong doing and eventually everyone went home.
We know there are many critics of the KDP and PUK among the armed forces. Even if they keep silent this time, we are certain that sooner or later they too will take a stand.
But the event – and the elections – have had a more lasting impact in this realm. Over the next few days, leaders and activists within the Change movement decided that they too needed an armed force.
Partially this stems from the existing situation with Iraqi Kurdish troops in the region. In practical terms Iraqi Kurdistan is split into two zones of influence, with one half under the control of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and the other under the control of PUK. Both of these parties have troops under their control. There are 14 brigades of Iraqi Kurdish military with a joint command – that is, about 45,000 fighters are supposed to be more independent and commanded by officers allied with both the KDP and PUK.
But there are triple that number of soldiers under the separate control of the KDP and PUK. The PUK has about 70 units and the KDP has about 80, with around 150,000 members in total. These forces are not neutral but answer to either one of the two political parties.
In January a statement made on local TV by a senior member of the PUK, Mullah Bakhtiar, raised alarm and caused much debate. “Regardless of the number of seats we win, whether one or 100, we will continue to be the PUK… we have weapons and nobody can take them from us,” he said, in apparent disregard of any electoral results.
Meanwhile groups like the Change movement don’t have that kind of man- or gun-power. Which is leading to the formation of what some have christened the “Democracy Protection Force”.
“To stand on its own two feet, democracy needs a force that protects it,” Ali Hama Salih, a prominent member of the Change movement, wrote on his Facebook page. “One day, they close the parliament and another day, they insult you at the checkpoint. The next day, they attack you or threaten assassination. They are fraudsters and they attack the headquarters of the Change movement.”
Election campaigning on Kurdish streets.
“So that the people do not lose hope of ever seeing any meaningful change, our best option is to form a military force to protect voters, demonstrators and ballot boxes. One should not act unjustly. But sometimes, if somebody slaps you, you have to slap them back,” Salih argued.
Asked whether he really meant what he said, Salih told NIQASH that he did and that thousands of Change movement supporters also did.
Other sources inside the Change movement verify this and say that the idea is being taken very seriously by senior members of the party. The subject will be officially discussed at the highest levels, they say. This is despite the fact that in many ways, the Change movement has often spoken out against the use of force in Iraqi Kurdish politics.
“The parties in power have caused this situation, where the Change movement, as a major political force in the region, is starting to think about forming an armed force,” says Mam Rostam, a well known Iraqi Kurdish veteran who’s been working with the Change movement.
“The PUK and the KDP don’t believe in democracy and the results of elections and they use force to make others succumb to their will,” Rostam continued. “The Change movement can no longer accept this and it will take a new position on this matter. There are tens of thousands of supporters willing to take up arms to protect the Change movement,” he concluded.
If we don’t choose different means to achieve change, then others will.
One of the founders of the Change movement, Babakr Daraei, posted a picture on Facebook of himself and another of the party’s leaders holding guns, while standing at the tomb of the party’s late and much loved leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa. Daraei also happens to head the art and culture department in Sulaymaniyah. The picture caused much debate and discussion.
That is because civilians know all too well that the PUK and KDP are unlikely to abandon their troops or guns and that the Change movement has been against bearing arms in the past. When the Change movement was formed, it was created on the basis of reform through democracy. But the current leaders of the party are becoming convinced that this just isn’t working.
“Just as pen and ink can expose the unjust and the oppressors and force them to retreat, in a time of need, weapons and bullets can also achieve this,” Daraei wrote in reply to the many perturbed commenters. “They [arms] can defeat the mafia and the men in power.”
“We will follow the civil and democratic road for as long as we can to bring about change in the region,” Hoshyar Abdullah, a senior member of the Change movement, told NIQASH. “The late Nawshirwan Mustafa told us that the main road to change in Iraqi Kurdistan must be through the ballot box and by civilian means.”
Abdullah had something to add to that though: “By this, he was talking about the main road. But there are other side roads to bring about change too. We hope that we will not be forced to choose them and we hope that the parties in power accept that they have failed.”
“The parties in power were not prepared to accept defeat in the elections. The Change movement thought that was the way to end their time in power,” argues Mam Rostam. That is why attitudes are changing, he says. “If we don’t choose different means to achieve change, then others will.”
The Change movement are not the only party in Iraqi Kurdistan complaining about the election results. Another party, the brand new Coalition for Democracy and Justice, is also protesting the results and claiming that the PUK and the KDP somehow manipulated voting.
“The PUK and the KDP have weakened faith in the forces of democracy,” concedes Ribawar Karim Mahmoud, a professor of political science and spokesperson for the Coalition. “If other parties contest the PUK and KDP’s positions, we hope that citizens won’t accept them and will turn away. For example, we know there are many critics of the KDP and PUK among the armed forces. Even if they keep silent this time, we are certain that sooner or later they too will take a stand.”
Naturally the PUK, one of the parties accused of electoral fraud, denies doing anything bad. “We fully believe in the election process and in the ballot box,” says Qadir Hama Jan, the member of the PUK overseeing elections in Sulaymaniyah. “That is why we have always accepted the results in the past.”
Asked about the idea of the Change movement or other political parties forming their own troops, Hama Jan was sceptical. It is actually illegal for a political party to have a militia, he points out, before arguing that the troops allegedly belonging to the PUK and KDP are paid out of a central ministerial budget and that they don’t actually “belong” to any political party.
“That is why, any attempts by the Change movement to form their own troops is unacceptable to the PUK,” Hama Jan concluded.