Iraqi PM To Campaign In Kurdistan Too, But His First Move Falls Flat
The Iraqi PM has joined other Arab parties and will campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan, where Arabs don’t usually get a lot of votes. But one of the moves that might have gained Kurdish support has backfired already.
Protestors in Iraqi Kurdistan had a new target: The Iraqi PM. (photo: حمه سور)
Shiite Muslim political parties are taking the unusual step of campaigning seriously in the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan. It’s a place where the Kurdish-majority population votes mainly for Kurdish politicians. However that is changing this year – and the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has now joined the northward drift.
“The alliance led by Haider al-Abadi will campaign for votes in the parliamentary elections in some of the cities of the Iraqi Kurdish region,” confirms Rizkar Haji Hama, a senior member of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission. “And the candidates will be Kurdish.”
It has become clear that al-Abadi is more like the other politicians around here. He was not honest.
Observers say that al-Abadi wants to gain some sort of political toehold in the semi-autonomous northern region, which has its own military, parliament and legislation. It would prove his talk about diversity and inclusiveness is genuine, they say. In the past, the only people who have campaigned in this part of Iraq and had any chance of winning have been Kurdish politicians.
But this year there are a number of points that may be encouraging al-Abadi and his candidates. Firstly there has been a change in the balance of power up north. Ever since the ill-fated Kurdish referendum on independence, Baghdad has had the upper hand, controlling Kurdish border points, including its airports, and its finances.
Part of the latter involves the ongoing non-payment of salaries to civil servants like local teachers. This group demonstrated again in the past week and the protests were met with some violence, those present say. The missing or withheld salaries have become a major issue for Kurdish voters and al-Abadi said that the Iraqi government will pay them, if the Kurdish authorities make certain concessions.
Al-Abadi believes that Kurdistan is part of Iraq and he is behaving according to that, Ihsan al-Shammari, a politics professor at Baghdad University and head of a local think tank, the Iraqi Centre for Political Thought, told NIQASH.
“Al-Abadi wants to benefit from the feelings being expressed by some Kurds that they too are citizens of Iraq,” al-Shammari continued. “Especially because he has previously seen demonstrations in Kurdistan in support of him. The political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan have been doing a terrible job and the Kurdish citizens are seeking alternatives.”
“Our participation simply conveys the message that our alliance is a national one and that it serves all Iraqis,” adds Haidar al-Mawla, a member of al-Abadi’s party. “We know political competition in the Kurdish region will be difficult for us,” he admits.
It’s hard to predict what will happen in Iraqi Kurdistan during these elections given the tumultuous last few months. Will the Kurds continue to vote only for their own home-grown politicians or might they look further afield, given that the current crop of Kurdish leadership is not looking so effective right now?
“Our participation is not meant to mobilize the masses against the leaders of the Kurdish region or to stand against them,” adds Ali al-Allaq, a politician close to al-Abadi. “Our participation is part of our special election program.”
Still, al-Allaq admits, it is true that the issue of the unpaid salaries might turn voters toward al-Abadi and his candidates.
Over the past few days, that is looking a little trickier than before though. Al-Abadi had said he would send the salaries owed to Kurdish civil servants, including teachers and medical staff, from Baghdad. After the Kurdish region began grappling with a financial crisis, local authorities initiated a “salary saving” project, where salaries were cut and the amounts noted, to be paid at a later date. As the situation worsened, some salaries were not paid at all. This led to large demonstrations and much public sympathy for groups like unpaid teachers in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The central government in Baghdad transferred money to Iraqi Kurdistan on March 18, saying they would send the salaries owed, without any cuts, for the employees of the education and health ministries in Iraqi Kurdistan.
But the Kurdish finance ministry then paid out the money to all employees, not just from the ministries of health and finance, which meant that once again they had to “save” on salaries. Staff had been expecting to get their full pay and were disappointed and angry.
Al-Abadi’s chances of winning Kurdish votes were already weak and his decisions not to send all the money have just seen them decrease further.
In a statement on March 23, al-Abadi said that they had not been able to satisfy everybody and that he had to send the money through the regional government, who had then made this decision. The federal government had sent around IQD317 billion (around US$265 million) north, but to pay all of the employees of the Kurdish government, all of their wages, would have required IQD900 billion (around US$754 million). Instead everyone got a little, but nobody got everything they were owed.
One local media outlet reported that al-Abadi had done a backroom deal with the Kurdish authorities about the money. Instead of sending the cash to the provinces to be paid out as it was originally intended, he had agreed to send it to the regional authorities, in order to curry favour with them and get their support for his bid as prime minister. Some of the Iraqi Kurdish parties had been getting closer to his rivals for the job.
Which is why at the next set of demonstrations protesting the lack of salaries, participants also criticized al-Abadi. “What happened to your promises, Haider?” their signs asked.
“Al-Abadi’s chances of winning Kurdish votes were already weak and his decisions not to send all the money have just seen them decrease further,” Abed Khalid, the dean of the political science facility at the University of Sulaymaniyah, argues.
“The decision surprised and disappointed us,” says Adel Hassan, one of the Kurdish teachers organizing the demonstrations. “Because everybody had arranged their affairs so they would receive the full amounts they were owed. It has become clear that al-Abadi is more like the other politicians around here. He was not honest and this will have a negative impact on his popularity in the upcoming elections.”