On November 16, senior Iraqi Kurdish politician Massoud Barzani, gave a speech after the Iraqi Kurdish military had managed to push the extremist Islamic State group out of the town of Bashiqua. In it he also sent a message to the protestors in Sulaymaniyah, who have been demonstrating because of a lack of pay and government services. He compared them to the dancers of the dabke, a folk dance that sees participants putting arms around each other’s shoulders and moving around in a circle.
The message appeared to be: Keep dancing in endless circles, do what you will, you will not be heeded.
The demonstrators reacted with even bigger crowds and a protest led by the teachers of Sulaymaniyah, who have not been paid for months, started with dabke music being played.
The comments by Barzani, the semi-autonomous northern region’s President, also set off local satirists. On trend was the idea of the financial crisis being replaced by a crisis for face wipes, because dabke dancers often wipe their sweaty faces off afterwards. In another video on YouTube a local man sang about the lack of his salary while in the background local officials appeared to dance the dabke.
Barzani did respond to the jokes at his expense with a statement in which he said he wanted to try and resolve the issues but that other political parties wouldn’t come and negotiate with him. The Iraqi Kurdish Parliament has been suspended for months due to a disagreement about who has the right to be the region’s president, a position Barzani currently – and some say, illegally – holds.
This is the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan today: The KDP and PUK have fallen out over the presidency. But control of the region is basically split in half, with the Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP, in charge of one half of the area and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and its partner, the Change movement, in charge of the other half. In the PUK-managed areas, salaries have not been paid to civil servants for months. Many institutions such as schools and administration offices have closed down; only essential services like hospitals and security forces are still working regularly.
In the KDP-managed areas, everything is still working, almost as normal.
Due to a financial crisis sparked when Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan argued over the autonomous region’s share of the federal budget, salaries have not been being paid regularly for months. At first civil servants were being paid every three months, then they were being paid only a half or quarter of their salaries. Even with this, money is only paid every six to eight weeks.
The politicians see themselves as the shepherds and the people as the sheep.
“Barzani’s statements are a clear indication of the widening gap between the region’s rulers and the region’s people,” argues Assad Othman, a journalist from the city of Klar. “Most of the citizens do not trust the politicians and when Barzani makes statements like this, it only increases distrust and it makes people lose hope.”
“The officials see themselves as somehow above the people,” says Ako Samad, an engineer who has been participating in the demonstrations. Samad believes this is due to the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan exists like a rentier economy – that is, its main income is from the sales of oil and gas and this money is then redistributed through the government to the people, most of whom are employed by the government rather than in the private sector. “People dream of getting a government job where they don’t have to make much effort and then getting rich off oil money,” Samad complains. “So the politicians see themselves as the shepherds and the people as the sheep.”
“This gap between the politicians and the people is nothing new,” says Yassin Sardashti, a lecturer in history at the University of Sulaymaniyah. “It is all about ongoing political and administrative failure. The authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan have become corrupt and pose a major threat to people’s lives. People are frustrated with this and believe that if the current leaders remain in power, crises will just keep on coming.”
Locals see their politicians living affluent lifestyles while they are not being paid their salaries, says Sakar al-Sheikh Aziz, who is doing his doctorate in politics at the same university. “And there is a long tradition of buying people’s votes. That’s why politicians abandon their constituencies as soon as they are in power.”
It is hard to know what will happen next.
Engineer Samad believes that the Kurdish people need to strike out on their own more and avoid dependence on politicians. “We should work in other industries, in agriculture and industry, because as long as the infrastructure remains the way it is, this situation will be the same no matter who is in power,” he notes.
Journalist Othman thinks that Barzani’s follow-up statement after the “dabke speech” indicates that politicians know how serious the protestors are getting. He hopes that they will respond positively to the demands of the demonstrators soon.
Meanwhile political studies student Aziz believes that Iraqi Kurdistan needs to learn the lessons of the past. “Politicians need to understand their mistakes and avoid them in the future,” he says. “They should put the interests of the people first, as they are supposed to do.”