From March 25 to 30, Kurds demonstrated in Sulaimaniya, Erbil, and Dohuk in an unprecedented wave of protests against public salary cuts. In response, in Erbil and Dohuk dozens of journalists, activists, civil servants, and other government employees such as teachers were arrested and assaulted in a violent crackdown by members of security forces affiliated with the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). A similar dynamic occurred in Sulaimaniya during demonstrations on December 18-20, 2017. Protesters were met with an overwhelming and violent crackdown that saw tanks in streets, five killed and over two hundred injured in what was a new and unusual response by Sulaimaniya political elites and security forces, which have mostly allowed protests over the past several years, barring several instances of violence and intimidation.

Demonstrations across the Kurdistan Region of Iraq are usually dismissed as inconsequential. Adherents of this view point out that between 2015 and 2016, frustrated residents of Sulaimaniya repeatedly took to the streets to protest reduced and inconsistent public salary payments, but were unable to achieve any serious results. None of these previous demonstrations spread to the Kurdistan regional capital, Erbil, and all fizzled out eventually due to a combination of occasional harassment and apathy.

But the latest demonstrations—in December 2017 in Sulaimaniya and March 2018 across the Kurdistan region—differ significantly from past ones. The protests appear to represent an important shift in the Kurdish public’s view of the political leadership. Moreover, the March 2018 protests took place not just in Sulaimaniya, but in Erbil as well, the thus-far placid seat of the KRG and the center of power for Masoud Barzani’s KDP, which maintains extensive patronage networks there. The sight of KDP-affiliated security forces attacking local civil servants, journalists and activists marked a significant deterioration in the KDP’s relations with the Kurdish public.

The anger the protests expressed against Kurdistan’s ruling elites—the Barzani and Talabani family duopoly—is a result of a combination of factors. The KRG’s growing fiscal crisis, which has resulted in three years of unpaid salaries and rising public debt to local creditors, has certainly contributed to local anger. With the war against the self-proclaimed Islamic State mostly over, Erbil no longer has the luxury of pointing to the security emergency to justify the accumulating debt and dwindling savings many Kurds face. On March 19, just before the Erbil protests took place, Baghdad did transfer $267 million to the KRG’s ministry of finance to cover public salaries, but this was too little, too late for KRG civil servants. The sense that they are suffering while political elites continue to enjoy the fruits of corruption has led to rising bitterness among the Kurdish population.

But the break in popular trust in the KRG is not just driven by finances. The real catalyst was political, namely the failure of the September 2017 independence referendum and the KRG’s subsequent loss of control over Kirkuk and other disputed territories, as well as the political and economic rights Kurds had extracted from Baghdad since 2003. The confident promises of the KDP and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) elites proved to be baseless. They abandoned Kirkuk and the rest of the disputed territories with little to no resistance, shattering the Kurdish dream of independence in a matter of days.

As a result, Kurds have less tolerance for the mismanagement that plagues the regional administration. Iraqi Kurds have stomached massive corruption (billions of dollars are missing in oil revenue) and nepotism (Barzani and Talabani family members and their cronies fill every major post) since 2003 because they were going to be independent, or at the very least they were on a trajectory that gave them more autonomy from Iraq. But since Baghdad reasserted control over disputed territories in October 2017, Erbil can no longer offer any meaningful justification for the corruption and the nepotism. The sense of infallibility that surrounded the KDP and the PUK all but disappeared, and Kurdish willingness to endure economic hardship receded.

There is unlikely to be any reversal in this popular sentiment any time soon. With the reduced budget payments from Baghdad and the loss of oil exports from Kirkuk, neither the KDP nor the PUK can maintain their patronage networks, which were dependent on public-sector jobs and benefits. At the same time, the federal government has no intention of easing its grip on the disputed territories or of giving the KRG any opportunity to renew its independence drive. As a result, Kurds may have irrevocably rejected the political duopoly: although the Barzani and Talabani families will always retain support from their innermost circles, a significant portion of the remainder of the population will see little value in maintaining the status quo.

How destabilizing the coming transition will be depends on whether the current Kurdish elite recognizes the depth of popular dissatisfaction and whether other regional and international actors can convince—or allow—them to give up their absolute duopoly to new and emerging political movements. New parties and actors are already on the rise in Sulaimaniya and spreading to Erbil, Kirkuk, and the disputed territories. The Gorran Movement split off from the PUK in 2009, and PUK leader Barham Salih left the party in August 2017 to form the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ). Meanwhile, Shaswar Abdulwahid, a Kurdish businessman and media mogul, founded the New Generation Movement in October 2017.

How these parties perform in the May 12 Iraqi elections will be a test of their popular support and of existing political elites’ willingness to share power. The loss of disputed territories is likely to cost all Kurdish parties seats in the assembly, meaning that the KRG’s voting power could be reduced. More importantly, the diminished popularity of the KDP and the PUK means they are both set to lose further seats to Gorran, the CDJ, and New Generation. For the PUK in particular, continued losses since 2009 in its traditional strongholds of Sulaimaniya and Kirkuk will reduce the party to one of many in Kurdistan, rather than as a dominant player. Under these circumstances, the KDP and PUK will find it more difficult to dominate Kurdish representation in Baghdad.

For the PUK and KDP, these elections are therefore existential. Past polls have been dogged by allegations of serious election fraud, and there are already reports of intimidation and allegations of planned vote rigging in advance of the May 12 elections. One oft-mentioned concern is that the KDP will use intimidation tactics to force IDPs, especially Yezidis and Sunni Arabs, to vote for them. However, given the apparent shift in popular sentiment, even endemic voter fraud is unlikely to be sufficient to protect the KDP’s and PUK’s unchallenged status.

Both parties’ campaigns are emphasizing the need for a powerful and unified Kurdish presence in the Iraqi parliament and in the new government in order to secure Kurdish interests and regain their rights. However, Kurdish politics is more divided than at any time since the mid-1990s, and the message of Kurdish unity under the leadership of the traditional parties who recently lost these rights may not resonate much with the Kurdish public. Some Kurds may react by simply not voting. And the protest parties may balk at the KDP and PUK efforts to restore their hegemony and partner with other Iraq parties to preserve Kurdish interests based on a new logic of reform and partnership. Gorran and CDJ are running together with the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) in the disputed territories, and on April 23 the three parties further signed an agreement to form a coalition after elections.

This would mark a major shift from the existing relationship between Baghdad and the Kurds, which has been marked by acrimony and a zero-sum mentality. The Kurdish leadership remain among the most dogged defenders of the ethno-sectarian system that was introduced in 2003 and the consensus politics that accompanied it. They have used this framework to protect and grow the KRG’s autonomy, but at the cost of isolating the region within Iraq. The referendum was a clear manifestation of this zero-sum mindset and its failures, and it remains to be seen whether they have learned from these strategic mistakes and sincerely commit to a constructive relationship with Baghdad.

The CDJ, Gorran, and New Generation are no less determined to protect their Kurdish constituents’ interests. However, their approach to date shows that they seek to achieve these goals through cooperation with Baghdad and good governance in the KRG. Barham Salih has often repeated that the path to peace and prosperity for Kurdistan is through Baghdad, and Gorran has also maintained a constructive position vis-a-vis Baghdad. Abdulwahid’s New Generation also has an Iraq-wide platform and has even been campaigning outside the Kurdistan Region in Iraq proper. This cooperative approach is more likely to resonate with some Iraqi Arab parties that are looking to protect their interests.

Baghdad would still have to reciprocate this cooperative approach, and it is yet to be seen whether or not Iraqi parties will treat Kurds as first class citizens and guarantee their constitutional rights. Despite the aggressive reaction to the referendum, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has somewhat softened his stance toward the Kurds, delivering salaries, and visiting Sulaimaniya, Erbil, and Dohuk as of April 25. His Nasr Coalition and Ammar al-Hakim’s Hikma Current—a breakaway movement from the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI)—have opened offices in Kurdish cities and are running Kurdish candidates on their lists.

How Kurdish political elites respond in the longer term is just as important as the number of seats Kurdish parties win in the Iraqi parliament and with whom they ally. The current duopoly appears to be unsustainable. With their legitimacy and credibility irreparably damaged, Kurdish political elites face a stark choice. They can acknowledge the need for fundamental change and the demands of protesters by providing greater accountability, more representative government, and administrative and fiscal reform. In doing so, both the KDP and PUK will lose some of their power and privilege but gain long-term stability for Kurdistan. The alternative, seeking to preserve the status quo, is likely to be impossible without greater repression and violence. This strategy may prolong the duopoly in the short term but may cost the KRG and Iraq far more in the longer term. 

Christine McCaffray van den Toorn is the Director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimaniya. Follow her on Twitter @vandentoorn.