After the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Kurdish region was held up as a democratic model for the country. But today it is ribboned with anger and disillusion.
Regular demonstrations have confronted growing nepotism, corruption and repression.
Those protesting have spent most of their lives under Kurdish control. Since the 1991 Gulf war, the Kurdish majority regions of Iraq have been run by two parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
Between 1994 and 1997 they fought a bloody civil war in which thousands of people were killed and thousands more displaced.
From 1997, control over the region was divided between the two parties. The PUK controlled the Sulaymaniyah area in the east, while the KDP ran the areas around Irbil in the west.
A recent unity agreement has seen the two parties carve up all ministries between them. People are enraged at their exclusion from the political process, and this anger is most concentrated among young people.
A large number of young people refused to participate in Iraq’s constitutional referendum of October 2005, or the parliamentary elections held in December.
Shabaz Jamal, a 23 year old youth worker from Sulaymaniyah, was one of those who abstained. He said, “Ordinary people are not involved in the political process as participants, but as the servants of political power.”
He believes that the Kurdish authorities are “undemocratic, and do not implement the principles of civilised society”.
In September last year, Kalar, a town south east of Sulaymaniyah, erupted in protest over water and electricity shortages. Demonstrators set fire to several government buildings after the protest was violently attacked by police.
Other demonstrations demanding better services have been organised by students at the University of Sulaymaniyah.
Ayub Kareem, 23, editor of the independent student newspaper Liberal Education, warned, “It is a big mistake if the Kurdistan experience is considered to be a perfect democratic model for Iraq. We have a democracy based on corruption.”
Others share Kareem’s view. Jabar of the Kurdish Institute for Elections pressure group said, “In this country democracy exists only as a slogan. In practice there is no democracy.”
Party membership and nepotism is the only way to get a job, he added. “The political, economic and social injustice that exists in our country means we do not trust the authorities.”
Hilal Ibrahim, a 28 year old law graduate, fears he will never find work because he is not a member of one of the political parties. He said, “This is a new model of dictatorship — a ‘soft dictatorship’.”
Many accuse officials of lining their own pockets. “The true government is the one that works to make people wealthy, not itself,” said Jabar. “The Kurdish government works on making the officials, the parties and their supporters rich.”
“The administration in Kurdistan is a brand new model for the world,” Ibrahim said cynically. “We have about 50 ministries and more than 150 government institutions, but they cannot serve a population of five million.”
Ahead of last December’s general elections, the administration in Sulaymaniyah launched a campaign promising reform and the eradication of corruption.
But many saw that as a ploy to lure voters to the polls. “Removing an official but keeping the same system in not enough to eradicate corruption,” said Jamal.
People complain that the authorities do not listen to their needs. “Five months ago we asked for new libraries that included internet cafes and places for people and intellectuals to meet,” said Jabar. “They haven’t replied to us, and they never will. Our generation no longer believes in promises and empty slogans. We believe in deeds.”
Mariwan Hamarsheed is an independent Kurdish journalist in Sulaymaniyah