Protests Against the Kurdish Regional Government Stall in Opposition Talks
Caught in the spirit of reform that has spread all over the Middle East, protests against the Kurdistan Regional Government have largely gone unnoticed, with Kurdish youth demanding an end to corruption, nepotism, high unemployment, biased media outlets, and violence. “Twenty years after the establishment of Kurdish rule in the south of Kurdistan,” writes the Kurdistan Tribune “the recent mass protests against corruption and the harsh crackdown by the ruling parties highlight the need for a fresh look at our nation’s prospects.”
Long considered a success story of Western intervention, the protests reveal the extent of dissatisfaction with the Kurdish government. In light of a Human Rights Watch report on political rights in Kurdistan that revealed the suppression of anti-government journalism, and over ten casualties in the violent suppression of protests in April, the KRG’s stability, strong economic growth, and global reputation as a haven in a war-torn country since the overthrow of Saddam Husein’s regime are being threatened. Kurdistan has long been dominated by the two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion, an elite Kurdish population often heavily connected to either political party, has benefited economically. Nepotism has made public programs inefficient and wasteful, and the widening income gap has also put focus on the high unemployment rate.
Protests against corruption and unemployment began in mid-February, and even early protests were dispersed through the use of Iraqi security forces and private guard, who shot into the crowd, killing one. By March, thousands were protesting daily in the Kurdish Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah, demanding the transition of power from Massoud Barzani’s administration. Since then, protests have been violently repressed and the demands of the protesters have not been adequately addressed. Talks among opposition parties and the ruling KDP and PUK parties have continued into June, and have laid out a “roadmap to reforms”, although dissolution of the current government was not considered.
As the Arab world continues to navigate the road towards political freedom and dignity, it remains to be seen what role Kurdistan will play in it. Iraqi Kurdish youth seem eager to stand in solidarity with Kurdish Syrian towns protesting against the Assad regime. However, Iraqi Kurdish politicians who have fallen out of favor with many or Iraq’s Kurds are reluctant to express support for a regime change in Syria, fearing a backlash similar to the killing of Kurdish anti-Baath protesters in Qamişlo in 2004; protests which few Syrian Arabs expressed support for.