Much has been said about the advent of democracy in Iraq, however democracy in one part of Iraq, albeit not always in a perfect form, has been practiced since 1992.
The crucial parliamentary and presidential elections in the Kurdistan Region last weekend provide a gauge to determine how far politics and democracy have evolved in the region. KRG Head of the Department of Foreign Relations, Falah Mustafa Bakir, hailed the elections as a chance for people to make key decisions and ensure the region is on the “right track”, while strongly advocating as many international observers as possible.
From fighting in the mountains to running in parliament, fundamental achievements have been made since 1991 but democracy is still hampered by key deficiencies and shortfalls such the judicial system, elements of corruption and bureaucracy. According to Bakir, the Kurds are witnessing a transitional phase in their history and “have started to build the path towards democracy but can not claim to have a perfect democratic experience yet”. However, Bakir stresses that his government has the political will and the determination to “go to the end of that road”.
Political opposition is increasing, and there are signs that even the two dominant Kurdish parties, Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are evolving under pressure from changing times and increasing expectations of the people. There is something of a conceptual battle between old schools of thought and new liberal minds in Kurdistan.
According to Dindar Zebari, Special KRG representative to the UN, the Kurds have been leading actors of democracy in Iraq, and believe the elections “serve as another commitment of Iraqi Kurds to the sovereignty and unity of the country”, while urging more international support for issues in Iraq and Kurdistan.
The KRG have perhaps been their worst critics at times. According to Bakir, they have acknowledged the need to highlight their deficiencies, seek solutions and consult with others in bridging gaps. Progression in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq according to Bakir “needs patience, effort and international support”.
While it is easy to pick out failings in the Kurdish democratic experience, one must judge a subject within its context. With the exception of Turkey, which houses many constraints of its own, neighbouring countries can hardly be classified as model democracies. Democracy in Iraq itself is flawed, with many constitutional stipulations voted by millions, such as article 140 failing to attract serious attention in its implementation
Although by their admission democracy in Kurdistan is far from perfect, achievements in less than two decades and particularly in the last six years have been noteworthy. No democracy has ever flourished without its pains and conflicts, and Kurdistan is no different.
The Kurds have suffered immeasurably under authoritarian Arab rule since the creation of the artificial state of Iraq. Finally free from the totalitarian grip of Saddam Hussein after immense sacrifice, Kurds were able to decide their own future and also showcase the virtue of self-determination that they had been deprived for so long.
And what better way to showcase your credentials for statehood and self-rule than show the world and your nemesis in the region that you are capable of a democracy and a way of governance that not only would be unique in Kurdistan as it would be a first, but one that could also serve as a benchmark for the rest of region.
Kurds have tried hard to implement a system of tolerance to other religions and ethnicities that they themselves have not received. Ever keen to attract a positive view from the West, Kurds have been keen to fight disputes such their dispute over the city of Kirkuk, in a democratic manner to legitimise and bolster their experience.
In the time since its inception the Kurdistan parliament has passed a number of important laws, covering women rights, press, economy, civil liberties and general society. The improvements in freedoms and laws since 2003 have been noticeable, for example with increasing rights for woman and increased government tolerance to opposition.
However, reports, which have at times been too general, from human rights organisations have continued to highlight shortcomings in terms of the application of the rule of law, opposition and general freedoms. According to Zebari, these reports are taken “seriously” and the government has set up committees and reinforced its desire to bring “human rights to international standards”.
There is still an element of apprehension that the parliament is really supporting and serving the people. There is a general consensus that parliamentarians have to be more attentive to public concerns and demands. Accountability must increase for this to be realised. For Zebari, “elections will add to the legitimacy of the setup of this region as elections always bring back credibility, transparency and trust, from the authorities to the people and vice versa.”
Moving forward, the Kurdistan parliament should work to become a reflection of the will of the people, and there must be a closer correlation between both sides. Politics must adapt to the people and environment and not the other way around.