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Setting A Good Example:
When It Comes to Reforms, 'Model' Iraqi Kurdish Region Is Lagging Behind Baghdad

Histyar Qader
The crises that caused Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi to announce serious reforms also affect the Iraqi Kurdish region. But much to some locals' anger, no major reforms are planned there, local authorities say.
No reforms? Demonstrators in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2011 didn't have as much impact as everyone thought they should. (photo: زانكو احمد)
No reforms? Demonstrators in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2011 didn't have as much impact as everyone thought they should. (photo: زانكو احمد)

For years the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan has compared well with the rest of the country – it is often described as a less conflicted, safer and more democratic part of Iraq. But now it seems to be lagging behind Baghdad, where the current Prime Minister is trying to institute radical and important reforms.

Three months after Baghdad announced a series of reforms, aimed at ending corruption, increasing transparency and helping solve the country’s financial and security crises, the Iraqi Kurdish government in Erbil has done nothing similar – and that's despite the fact that, although they may not always act like it, the Iraqi Kurdish are part of Iraq and are actually suffering the same problems.

In an unusual turnaround, Arab MPs in Baghdad began criticising the Iraqi Kurdish government for its reluctance to work on reforms.

“The Kurdistan region is part of Iraq and it should organize itself to institute reforms similar to those that the central government is undertaking,” says Ibtisam Hilali, an MP belonging to the same broad political bloc, State of Law, as the Prime Minister. “The region should make reforms that are parallel to Baghdad's. The economic crisis is also having an impact on the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, perhaps even more of an impact. If the region doesn’t implement similar reforms we may have to suspend the region's share of the federal budget.”

Then again, many in Iraqi Kurdistan may not consider this much of a threat. There have already been plenty of complaints that Baghdad has not sent the right amount of the federal budget – the Iraqi Kurdish are supposed to get a 17 percent share of it – or not enough. Civil servants in Iraqi Kurdistan haven't been paid for several months, government institutions have had to reduce their spending and various projects have been stalled.

The Kurdish region is usually held up as a beacon of hope for Iraq. But now, in an unusual turnaround, Baghdad MPs are criticising it for lagging behind with reforms.

Interestingly some Iraqi Kurdish MPs in Baghdad agree with Hilali – they also believe that Iraqi Kurdistan should put some reforms into effect.

“If Iraqi Kurdistan does not undertake reform, there will be even greater risks,” says Bakhtiar Shawis, an MP with what is arguably Iraqi Kurdistan's most powerful party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, who is also an MP in the federal Parliament in Baghdad. Shawis believes that Iraqi Kurdistan has already been badly affected by the current financial crisis and that this will only worsen if reforms are not made.

Just because there has been no announcement doesn't mean that there are no reforms, Safeen Dizayee, the spokesperson for the government of semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, told NIQASH.

“The reforms we are implementing in the Kurdish region are not a direct copy of those in Baghdad,” Dizayee explained. “That is despite the fact that we value and appreciate al-Abadi's reforms.”

The Iraqi Kurdish reforms are being carried out on an office-by-office and ministry-by-ministry basis and they are more general, he says. “And reforms are more than just removing a few people from their jobs,” Dizayee adds, in what seems to be a veiled reference to the fact that, while the government in Baghdad has managed to remove some key politicians from their positions, other reforms have stalled.

“We do have a programme of reforms,” says Zozan Barwari, a senior member of the KDP. “But we are dealing with a terrible financial situation and we are fighting a war against the Islamic State group. We can only start reforming when the conditions are right for reform.”

The demand for reforms is yet another contentious topic for the broad-based governing coalition, which shares power among nearly all of Iraqi Kurdistan's political parties.

For example, during a speech at the September opening of an Erbil church, the Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani announced that: “We have been working on reforms ever since the government was formed. But we don't have a comprehensive project to announce”.

“The government is incapable of managing service-related projects [like power and water] and it hasn't been able to pay its employees,” the Speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament, Yusuf Mohammed, a member of former opposition part, the Change movement, followed up on Barzani's speech. “The government should take responsibility for this. If it cannot solve problems it should let the voters know. Nobody should shirk their responsibilities.”

Given the tensions currently playing out in Iraqi Kurdistan – there have been demonstrations by unpaid workers and the government, made up of uneasy alliances, looks to be struggling to maintain unity – it seems reforms may be forced upon the region.

There will be talks held about reducing the salaries of highly paid and high ranking officials. Fakhraddin Qadir, the secretary of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament and a member of one of the Islamic parties, told NIQASH he was pleased that these talks were even being held – however he also felt there was little will to carry out genuine reform.

“Saying that there can be no reforms because of the fighting against the islamic State is a weak argument,” Qadir says. “There were reforms suggested in a package presented by the three former opposition parties. But none of it was acted upon.”

The Iraqi Kurdish government doesn't have quite the same impetus for implementing reforms either. Massive popular demonstrations in Baghdad and further south forced the Iraqi government to pay attention and make promises about reform. However, although there are some demonstrations by unpaid employees now, this hasn't happened to the same degree in the northern region.

“Despite the various crises here, the street is weak,” says Shawis. “There haven't been any demonstrations here and that has an impact. Additionally there isn't a real opposition in Iraqi Kurdistan right now and there are no political groups capable of triggering such large protests.”

In 2011, there was a wave of major demonstrations in Iraqi Kurdistan and after violent crackdowns, the local authorities did promise reforms. But none of them appear to have been enacted.

“Reforms planned by al-Abadi are acceptable to the people of Iraqi Kurdistan yet they have not reached the region,” says Shvan Zangana, who heads an activist organisation in the region. “Reforms should be planned because for years officials in Iraqi Kurdistan have been talking about the region as a model for all of Iraq.”

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