One issue that has bedeviled US foreign policy in the Middle East is the support for authoritarian regimes. All too often, short term stability has trumped support for long term reforms, especially reforms that promote democratic governance. This process is occurring again in Iraqi Kurdistan where the Kurdish leadership is becoming increasingly authoritarian and repressive. Fortunately, there is a breath of fresh air in Iraqi Kurdistan in the form of the Gorran (Change) Movement. Before discussing Gorran's contribution to democracy, we need to understand the context in which it was established
As a strong ally, the US should continue to maintain close ties with the Kurds and the Regional Government (KRG) which rules Iraqi Kurdistan. However, by supporting the current Kurdish political elite which does not reflect the interests of the populace at large, the US is once again making a serious mistake. It is trading short term stability for potential instability in the long term as it becomes identified with a repressive and unpopular elite whose legitimacy is on the decline due to corruption, nepotism and authoritarian rule. In neighboring Iran, support for the repressive and highly unpopular Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi produced the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79 and the disastrous regime that continues to haunt the US and the Middle East to this day.
The two political,parties that control the KRG, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), claim that the Iraq's Kurds have enjoyed democratic freedoms under their rule since the region acquired semi-autonomous status following the Gulf War of January 1991. There was some progress towards democratization when the US imposed a "no-fly zone" after the war ended which allowed the KRG to break away from the Arab south. However, the KDP and PUK have dominated the political system, judiciary, the military and intelligence services and the economy, which has allowed for systematic abuses. As the dominant employer in the KRG, the KDP and PUK have been able to use the threat of dismissing Kurds from their jobs as an effective form of social control.
The reality is that the KRG government is becoming increasingly authoritarian. Attacks on the non-party press have intensified. Newspapers and journals that dare to criticize government corruption are subject to onerous lawsuits that impose heavy fines. At least two young journalists, Soran Mam Hama and Zardasht Osman have been killed for criticizing the KRG leadership.
The KRG has established an amalgam of courts, all of which are populated by judges sympathetic to the two major parties. Thus it is impossible to obtain a fair trial when political issues are involved. Many of the courts are extra-judicial because they were established by either the KDP or PUK and thus have no legal standing. In some instances, Ba'thist era criminal statutes laws are used to prosecute those who criticize the KRG such as the 1969 Iraqi penal code that allows prison terms for journalists
editors, writers, and publishers on defamation and other offenses.
It is within this context of corruption, nepotism and authoritarian rule that a new political movement has appeared on the Kurdish political scene. The Gorran (Change) Movement was formed in the spring of 2009 by a reform group within the PUK, led by one of the party's founding members, Nawshirwan Mustafa. Gorran has grown quickly, beyond the dissidents who joined Nawshiran Mustafa in leaving the PUK. It enjoys widespread support in Iraqi Kurdistan among intellectuals, professionals and the educated middle classes, but increasingly among the broad swath of the Kurdiosh populace that is suffering from lack of jobs and access to education and other public services. Gorran has also received strong support from the Kurdish Diaspora in Europe and the United States.
Gorran was most successful,in the July 2009 KRG parliamentary elections. Of the chamber's 100 elected seats (an additional 1o appointed seats are reserved by the KRG for minorities and are delegated by the KRG president), Gorran won 25 seats. With the 15 seats won by the Services and Reform List, a coalition of Islamist and socialist parties, 40 of the parliament's 110 members are now part of the opposition.
Although the KRG leadership has refused to respond to questions posed by the Gorran and other opposition members about the use of public funds, the July 2009 elections have encouraged more Kurds to question how the KRG is being run. More and more Kurds seem inclined to vote for Gorran, especially in the Suleimaniya area which traditionally has been the PUK voting strength. Even though much of Gorran's initial strength came from PUK dissidents, now support for the party has spread to Arbil, Kirkuk and other Kurdish majority regions and towns.
As Gorran has generated more support, the KDP and faltering PUK have ratcheted up their efforts to suppress the party. During the March 2010 parliamentary elections, members of the peshmerga - the KRG militia - and police and intelligence officers were warned that, if they were suspected of having voted for Gorran, they would be required to swear on a Qur'an that they did not so. If they were found to have lied, their wives would be forced to divorce them for dishonesty. Despite efforts such as these to intimidate voters, Gorran still managed to gain 8 seats in parliament.
While it is still unclear where Gorran is headed, clearly it speaks to the disaffection of large segments of the Kurdish community in Iraq. As Gorran calls for laws to protect the media, an independent judicial system, and oversight of huge government revenues derived from oil production, more and more Kurds see the party that might deliver them from the lack of jobs amidst plenty and create a political culture in whjich freedom of expression acquires rel meaning.
Will the US support this expression of the Kurd's desire for democracy, and put pressure on the KRG leadership to "walk the walk" and not just "talk the talk" of democracy? Or will it drop the ball, thereby becoming identified with suipportiung a stolid and repressive regime? The risks of the continued status quo are the possible rise of radicalism in the KRG alomh islamist lines. To assure that Iraq's Kurds live in a stable and truly democratic state, the US and other nations committed t democracy need to move from spectators on the sidelines to active participants in helping the Kurds acquire and exercise the rights that so many of us in the West take for granted