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Kurdish Promise

The Obama-inspired political party that's transforming Iraqi politics.

In late summer 2007, I was doing research in Iraqi Kurdistan and staying with Nawshirwan Mustafa, whom I had to come to know through his son, a student at Harvard. Mustafa had been a senior figure in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two major political parties that had long maintained an unchallenged hold on Kurdish politics. About six months before I arrived, Mustafa and a band of compatriots—including, most notably, a man named Muhammad Rahim—had bolted from the PUK, and begun to build ... well, it wasn’t exactly clear what they were building. At first, it was a media company. But Mustafa and Rahim seemed to have larger ambitions.

They had set up shop in a hilltop office complex in Sulaimaniyah, the second largest city in the Kurdistan region. I ended up spending many of my days and nights with these political outcasts, as they shuttled back and forth between their homes and the office. It was chla, the 40 hottest days of the Kurdish summer, and work hours often corresponded with cut-outs of the unreliable electrical generators. Rolled-up car windows kept out the scorching summer air and kept in the omnipresent cigarette smoke. Outside the office, trees were planted, guest apartments built, and security enhanced.

In contrast to longtime PUK leader and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who is a Falstaffian figure of big appetites and personal warmth, Mustafa and Rahim were austere men. Mustafa, in his mid-sixties, is serious, reserved, and abstemious—a mountain of a man but without any girth—yet possessing of a wonderful smile. He commands attention with his silence, and his leadership style is distinctly post–cult of personality. Rahim is equally stoic, smaller, and not possessing of the smile. The two had grown dissatisfied with what they identified as PUK corruption, and Mustafa, a deputy to Talabani, decided to take his chances in the political wilderness after losing a key challenge to the party's leadership.

By the time I arrived in Kurdistan, their new organization was publishing a daily newspaper and maintaining a well-developed website. Its developing urban-populist editorial line would oppose corruption and claim to offer an independent voice, unfiltered by either the PUK or its counterpart, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Although the group’s initial start-up funds were provided by Talabani's PUK, it's difficult to believe that he foresaw, in 2007, the way it could emerge as an explosive challenge to his authority.

Now, fast forward three years. The organization has given birth to a political party known as the Change Movement ("Gorran")—a name borrowed from Barack Obama's political campaign—and in the Kurdish assembly’s regional elections, it claimed, to the surprise of many observers, 25 of the 111 seats. Gorran has become the third-strongest player in Kurdish politics, and it is undoubtedly the party to watch in the north. But who exactly are these people? And what do they want for Kurdistan—and Iraq?

Political change does not come easily in Kurdistan. Since the 1970s, Kurdish politics have been monopolized by the KDP and PUK. The leaders of both have cultivated reputations as patriots and heroes for persevering in the face of Saddam Hussein's repression. The KDP is more tribal, in the sense that it is rooted in the Barzani family, and power has remained within that family. (Future power struggles in the KDP will likely be internal, between one of Barzani's sons and his very capable nephew, former Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani.) The PUK, led by Talabani, is more consciously left-wing, vesting its power in a "politburo," and in many senses more modern. After the Kurds gained autonomy in the wake of the first Gulf war, the KDP-PUK rivalry took on heightened stakes, culminating in an internal war that claimed 1,000–3,000 lives and displaced upward of 70,000 people between 1994 and 1996. Peace arrived with the intervention of Hussein and then political mediation by the United States. Subsequently, both Kurdish parties actively supported the American overthrow of Saddam Hussein—and in the power vacuum after the 2003 invasion, the Kurds grabbed as much control over their future as possible, securing important places in the national government (Talabani became Iraq’s president) and advantageous constitutional provisions that give them, among other things, virtual veto power over constitutional amendments. As violence descended upon the rest of the country, Kurdistan gained a reputation for being a haven of relative peace and prosperity.

Yet the region's politics and business are still pervaded by a culture of "wazda" (connections) that frustrates many of the Kurdish youth in particular. Economic opportunity and party politics remain inextricably linked. As a young Kurd, it is likely that you will know what you will do with your life by your mid to late teens, and there is little you can do to change that. But, as peace and stability have set in, expectations have risen, and a younger generation has grown frustrated in its potted place. I recall vividly when a young teacher—who taught a room full of students who already knew that they too would become teachers—asked me if I knew a synonym for Kurdistan and Iraq. I asked him what he meant, and he responded: "futureless."

Like much of the region, the demographics of Kurdistan are heavily tilted toward the young. According to the Kurdistan Regional Government, more than half of its population is under 20, with more than one-third under the age of 15. By contrast, roughly one-quarter of the population of the United States is under 20. Iraqi-Kurdistan's young adults think of themselves as Kurds, do not speak Arabic, and remember the Kurdish internal war rather than the one between Iraq and Iran. Many of them live in urban areas and are concerned, perhaps above all else, with opportunity. They are naturally attracted to crusades against patronage and tribalism. And, like nearly 80 percent of Kurds, they vote.

That's where the Change Movement comes in. Significant efforts to reform Kurdistan’s political structure were, it must be said, already underway when Mustafa and Rahim burst on the scene. As recently as 2006, two separate Kurdish governments still existed, one in Erbil (KDP), the other in Sulaimaniyah (PUK); and the recent unification of the two governments and their respective ministries (with some important exceptions) has been no small achievement. The healing of divisions, however, does not seem to have lessened young, urban Kurds' concerns about their future. So when Gorran's founders stepped out of the PUK, they expected, and indeed found, that this large slice of the Kurdish populace shared their discontent. And it was only a short step from crusading against political corruption as a media company to running in elections themselves.

Gorran's ideology is not really a recognizable "ism" or a new political philosophy. Its leaders deploy Kurdish nationalist language, aggressively defending Kurdish claims in Kirkuk and the economic and political rights of autonomy. The party attacks regional corruption while promising to sweep away tribalism, encourage economic development, and improve the delivery of government services. Government, Gorran insists, must be separated from political parties, and civil society encouraged. Interestingly for an organization headed by a former leftist (Mustafa), its platform advocates free markets and privatization—arguing that, to build a healthy economy, industry must first be freed from the cronyism of government control. Stylistically, unlike the PUK and KDP, Gorran's campaigns are heavily dependent on cities, radio, television, and the Internet. They are also less personality-centric than the other two parties' appeals.

After claiming a substantial chunk of votes in last year’s regional elections, Gorran once again made its influence felt in this year’s federal elections. The PUK and KDP had banded together electorally to create the Kurdistan Alliance list, a coalition designed to showcase Kurdish unity and oppose the advances of Iyad Allawi's Sunni-based Iraqiyya list, which commands the support of Arabs and Turkomen in divided areas. The Alliance list did dominate the Kurdish vote in the important disputed provinces of Ninenveh and Kirkuk, and also won outsized but unsurprising victories in Erbil and Dohuk. However, in Sulimaniyah, the power base of the PUK, the Alliance claimed just eight seats to Gorran’s six. It totaled only about 350,000 votes, while Gorran claimed nearly 300,000 and the region’s two Islamic parties claimed approximately 180,000. Overall, the Alliance List lost 10 seats compared to its showing in 2005. This is not a revolution; but it is clear that the electorate is shifting and the old guard's power is eroding. At its heart, therefore, the question of Gorran's future is a question of how the Kurds will manage, one day or another, the turnover of power.

Gorran's rise has also had its darker side. The run-up to the recent election was marred by political violence. In February, a brief gunfight broke out between PUK and Gorran supporters. For his part, Talabani may have been slandered by media outlets hostile to the PUK, including ones run by Gorran; and, according to journalist Sam Dagher’s account in The New York Times, supporters of all three parties have used vitriolic and threatening language to describe their opponents.

So it remains to be seen whether the battle for political change will take place primarily in the assembly in Erbil (which has seen some fierce debate and political theater of late) or on the streets of Kurdish cities. There could be a replay of the violent Kurdish splintering of the 1990s. Or—and I meekly but nonetheless optimistically pronounce this outcome more likely—this violence could be the worst of a transition from two largely monopolistic parties to a more diverse political field.

Thus far, the rise of Gorran has been worthy of guarded optimism. Mustafa once wrote an exegesis of Kurdish politics under the translated title The Fingers Which Break Each Other. Taking another perspective, in 2005, a professor in the Kurdistan region told me the youth were the future of democracy in Iraq. Of the old, she said, “We all just make fires.” Breaking fingers, burning fires—whatever metaphor you want to use, history provides plenty of reasons to be wary that a modern, liberal Iraq is just around the corner. Still, this new era of competition in Kurdish politics provides some cause for hope.

Ian Klaus is the author of Elvis is Titanic: Classroom Tales from Iraqi-Kurdistan. He is currently writing a financial history of trust.

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