Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

When Warriors Become Politicians

Real democracy in the Kurdish regions will only emerge when the criteria for leadership becomes accountability and competence rather than years of military service.
By IWPR
Before the Kuwait war, the Kurdish struggle was led by the warriors in the mountains, the Peshmerga guerrilla fighters.



After the 1991 uprising and the establishment of the Kurdish autonomous area in Iraq, the Kurds elected a council of representatives and established a Kurdish government. It was then that the problems started, when the warriors became politicians.



Usually when there is a revolution, a military takeover or coup d’etat, at some point the warriors step aside and allow the politicians, the experts and the technicians to run the country. You need people with political and bureaucratic experience.



But in Iraqi Kurdistan, the field commanders from the mountains took all the important positions in government, from the prime minister and speaker of the parliament down to director generals of industries.



Even to this day, every Iraqi Kurd in a key position, from the president of the country on down, was in some way associated with the fighters from the hills.



The post-uprising generation, those who were five- and ten-years-old in 1991 and are now in their 20s and 30s, are almost entirely excluded from any position of importance. They were not Peshmerga.



Once I was interviewing the deputy prime minister in the Suleimaniyah administration and I raised a sensitive issue. He said to me bluntly, “You weren’t a Peshmerga, you didn’t fight, you have no right to discuss this with me.”



This is their mentality. They have and keep all of the privileges, and will not allow anyone to compete with them.



It is as if Iraqi Kurdistan is a limited company and whoever was a Peshmerga has shares in the company equal to the time he spent as a warrior. A year with the Peshmerga is equal to 20 years of normal activity.



We now have a parliament and the only legitimacy should be legal and constitutional. That is the basis of accountability and good governance.



But the elite in Kurdistan today rely on revolutionary legitimacy. And that, in the end, means the ones with the guns calls the shots.



They are the ones, they always insist on reminding you, who kicked out Saddam in 1991. Of course this kind of revolutionary legitimacy paralyses the logic of a legal legitimacy and the rule of law. It impedes democracy.



There are positive signs that social changes, including the media environment and social movements, are prompting the beginning of a change.



There is a huge amount of criticism now towards the Kurdish government, both in the media and on the street. Everyone is participating. The core of this criticism is that the main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, have to change the way they are running the government.



But at the same time, the poor security situation in the rest of Iraq is having an impact in the Kurdish region. It only encourages Kurdish officials to boast about their security stronghold. Before the fall of Saddam Hussein, they used his existence as a reason for not undertaking democratic reforms. Now it is terrorism.



The only winners of all this are the political parties, the PUK and the KDP. They have the approval of both the Americans and the Iraqi governments, and put every obstacle they can in the way of transition and democratic reforms.



The Peshmerga in fact have only been formalised as the Kurdish military. They use central government funds to strengthen their position and the whole security apparatus. The salary of a Peshmerga is three times that of a university graduate, and as a result thousands of young people, professionals and people from small businesses are signing up, continuing the militarisation of society.



All of this is used to put pressure on dissent.



In June 2006, there were demonstrations in many cities in the Kurdish region over the lack of services, especially electricity.



There are now only two hours of electricity a day, and when a new electricity feeder was put into place, the lines went directly to the home towns of the two main leaders, Iraqi president Jalal Talabini and president of the Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani.



But when people tried to gather to raise pressure over public services, the Peshmerga intervened and sent them home.



It is forbidden to hold a demonstration without getting approval first, and in some areas the Peshmerga the night before surrounded the gathering places to prevent people from holding their actions.



In Halabja, they resorted to force. Two people were killed, more than 20 injured and 200 arrested. Of these, two of the arrested and ten of the wounded were Hawlati correspondents.



Such events do show that there is a popular desire for change. But the institutional base for this is very small. The media is one pressure point. But otherwise, real civil society is chaotic and disorganised. In fact, the two parties almost completely control the non-governmental organisations and civil society groups in the region, and dominate the main broadcast media outlets.



As a result, change can only come from within the parties for now, and they are trying to reform internally – to ensure that no popular reform movement can gain momentum.



An improvement in the security situation in the rest of Iraq would be important, as it would remove the Kurdish parties’ false excuse for continuing their political control. The continuing influx of people from the rest of Iraq is also driving inflation, increasing the pressure on housing and creating other problems.



The Americans could put more pressure on the parties. So far, unfortunately, the US has maintained relations only with the party elite and is not in touch with the grassroots. Unlike in the rest of Iraq, they haven’t really made a serious effort to support the media and civil society in the Kurdish region.



The new American discourse - emphasising strong government over democratic government, talking more about a stable Iraq than a diverse Iraq - seems only to underline this approach.



Just because the Kurdish region is stable, the Americans seem to behave as if it is a fully established democracy with no problems. We will not have a real democracy in the Kurdish area until we move beyond revolutionary legitimacy and make the criteria for leadership accountability and competence rather than years of military service.



Twana Osman is editor-in-chief of the Suleimaniyah-based newspaper Hawlati.



This article has been produced with support from the International Republican Institute (IRI).

More IWPR's Global Voices