Sunday, August 2, 2009

In Iraq, it's the economy (and autocracy) stupid!

Photo of supporter of Change (Gorran)
List in streets of Sulaymaniya

Many of us remember the catchy phrase that James Carville coined during Bill Clinton's 1992 run for the US presidency: "It's the economy stupid!" As Clinton's main political adviser, Carville urged Clinton to focus on that which most concerned voters at the time, the terrible state of the US economy.
As analysts continue to focus on Iraq's ethnic divisions, they consistently fail to ask the very simple but important question: why do such divisions exist? Assuming that none of us believe in sociobiology, namely that Arabs and Kurds (and other Iraqi ethnic groups) emerge from the womb disliking or even hating each other, the core question of what drives ethnic divisions in Iraq needs to be raised. Unfortunately, it rarely is, in part because analysts continue to concentrate on elites, to the detriment of studying public opinion and non-elite political parties and civil society organizations.
The recent Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) Assembly Elections, that were held on July 25th, demonstrated that most Kurds are less worried about Iraq's Arabs to the south than the lack of jobs in Iraq's 3 northern Kurdish provinces and the pervasive corruption and autocracy that characterizes the two parties, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), that have ruled the semi-autonomous KRG since the US imposed a "No-Fly Zone" in 1991.
Because analysts largely ignore the political economy of Iraqi Kurdistan (and that of the south as well), they have little to say about the underlying dynamics of Kurdish politics. While it is true that most members of the Change (Gorran) List, that did very well in the July 25 elections, are former PUK members, including its leader Nawshiran Mustafa, that does not explain why they won 50% (and possible more) of the vote in the city of Sulaymaniya. Overall the Change List won 25% of the KRG Assembly Election votes, and the Reform and Services List - a coalition of Islamist parties and the Kurdish Socialist Party - won about 10%. Winning 35% of the vote against the KRG, which has had a lock on politics in Iraqi Kurdistan, and which used its considerable reserves of oil wealth to try and swing the election its way, is highly impressive. Perhaps the results are even more impressive if reports that candidates who joined the Change List and held government posts, e,g, deanships and professorships in Kurdish universities (see, were dismissed from their positions are in fact true.
All interviews indicate that Kurds are fed up with the corruption and authoritarian rule of the KRG, presided over by president and KDP leader, Masoud Barzani. Despite the fact that Masoud Barzani's father, Mullah Mustafa (d. 1975), still holds almost mythic status among older Kurds for his efforts to achieve an independent Kurdish state in the late 1940s and after, younger Kurds are more concerned with jobs and the ability to express themselves than with a history that none of them experienced. Certainly, the sentiments of voters prior to and after the elections underscore the desire for a more transparent government and using the oil wealth in KRG coffers for the Kurdish populace and not just the KDP-PUK elite.
Indeed, this was what I discovered when I visited the KRG. Few Kurds were concerned with Arab-Kurdish relations. In my research in the north I discovered that many young Arabs who have moved with their families to the north, as a result of sectarian violence in the south, have made friendships with young Kurds without any problems. A delegation of Iraqi youth that recently visited the US was comprised of many young Kurds who also indicated that they had no difficulty forming friendships with Arabs their own age when I spoke with them. While Kurdish-Arab relations do not seem high on the agenda of most Kurds, virtually all complained about corruption and lack of jobs. Indeed, I found many professionals, including lawyers and engineers, who were forced to take second jobs to support their families. With the proceeds from oil contracts known to be divided 3 ways, between the KRG, foreign investors and "other," Kurds completely understand the extent to which oil wealth is taken from the public purse for illegitimate ends. On the political side, Kurds implored me not to return to the US and speak of "Kurdish democracy," since they argued that civil society organizations require a government permit and that KRG officials are constantly looking over the shoulders of all members of such organizations to monitor their activities.
What will be the result of the Assembly Elections? First, with Change and Reform and Services lists having members in the KRG Assembly, the traditional KDP-PUK leadership will find it much more difficult to manipulate ethnic divisions, namely pitting Kurds against Arabs. Rather than being able shifting the focus from autocracy and corruption in the KRG to such issues as the contested city of Kirkuk and disputed areas along the KRG-southern border,the KRG leadership will be forced instead to confront, in the regional parliament, allegations of corruption and autocratic rule. President Masoud Barzani's ability to act as a "sectarian entrepreneur" will be dramatically diminished as the KRG will need to address, for the first time, widespread criticism coming from its own populace. This form of "checks and balances" is an incredibly healthy development in Kurdish politics.
What do the KRG Regional Assembly Elections imply for the future of Iraqi politics? If the traditional Kurdish leadership fails to coopt or suppress the new Change and Reform and Services lists, then there may be a greater opening for Kurdish-Arab cooperation in Iraq. In the January 30, 2009 Legislative Assembly Elections in the Arab south of Iraq, results paralleled much of what just occurred in the Kurdish north. Large numbers of Arab Iraqis voted against sectarian parties and cast their votes instead for parties that promised to deliver services and transparent governance. Provincial legislatures in the south likewise will provide critical "checks and balances" against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad.
Because both these regional elections mirror what public opinion in Iraq has shown for some time, i.e., the desire for democratic governance (64% of Iraqis indicated that democracy is the best form of government in a March 2009 ABC/BBC/NHK poll), forward looking Iraqi political leaders and parties should move to develop cross-regional coalitions that bring Kurds and Arabs together who seek to rid both the KRG and the central government in Baghdad of the massive corruption that characterizes them both. Although he is still tied to the PUK, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Saleh, is an ideal interlocutor for developing this type of political coalition.
When the Iraqi Parliament recently investigated the Iraqi Minister of Trade (see my post, "During Saddam's time, we could only dream of seeing something like this"), he was forced to resign as a result of parliamentary hearings,and will be tried for misusing public funds. Using elected legislatures - obviously a core component of any functioning democracy - broad based coalitions can work together to bring better governance to Iraq and insure that its oil wealth is directed at the people's needs rather than go into the coffers of Kurdish and Arab elites. When studying Arab and Kurdish politics in Iraq, analysts would do well to remember James Carville's admonition, "It's the Economy Stupid!," to which we should add, "It's autocracy as well!."