In Iraq, Kurdistan and in the wider Middle East, anger is in the air. This can be perceived through several events occurring in the region, either minor or important: demonstrations, instability, trends of immigration, heated social media discourses and low voting turnouts. The author of this piece chose to focus mainly on Kurdistan rather than Iraq. The two areas are bound together and share many features but are also different in many other ways. Iraqi Kurdistan’s specificity in relation to the issue of anger and politics will thus be emphasized in this article.
Modernization and its discontents
There is no doubt that one of the most notable characteristics of Kurdistan’s politics is the regular and high level of anger it carries. While anger, protest and demonstrations are global issues, each society expresses and manages anger in a particular way. Its roots often sprout from various sociological factors. As Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra puts it, “the unwelcomed side effects of modernization, and especially globalization, have created widespread frustrations, deeply felt resentments and political conflicts around the world”. This framework of modernization and its discontents also finds applications in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The Kurdish autonomous region entered the world in the era of post-modernity, to paraphrase French philosopher Roland Barthes, Kurds found themselves surrounded by images, steeped in them. The letter (reading) was replaced by the image (seeing). This sudden domination of images via televisions and cellphones has impacted the nature of communications and the way to perceive the world. Today the Kurds, especially the youths, are able to see the world and to desire it, often with no possibilities of fulfilling their ambitions. On the social aspects, a rapid transformation from rural to urban has taken place in the last two decades. Amid these realities, a complicated and multifaceted economy has emerged.
In addition to these, a succession of local, civil, regional and global conflicts has significantly impacted the society, making and unmaking the psyche and imaginations of its mostly young population. Social and political turmoil created a situation in which, more than any other time in their history, Kurds are dependent on their regional government as well as on the global oil price and influence of superpowers, namely Americans, for security. This coming to the world with limited power and influence makes the region and the people vulnerable.
Within this setting, domestic politics can be assimilated to a stage of mediocre democracy. In other words, it is neither fully democratic nor undemocratic: it is in a transitional and fragile stage of its development. Within this frame, personality and character dominate the policy making, rather than institutions themselves. This postmodern stage is also characterized by speed and spontaneity which does not allow for the tradition of the process of building to take place: building political parties, movements, institutions takes time. Meanwhile, for most Iraqi Kurds nowadays the mosque and family remain the most prominent institutions.
In this particular milieu, people hope that a beacon figure will appear, radically different from the rest of the elites and fix everything: a secular version of the messianic Mahdism. This is how many saw Nawshirwan Mustapha and his movement Gorran (the Change, in Kurdish) when it was created in 2009. This hope in the future, this waiting for someone to come that would bring justice and peace has set a fertile premise for exaggeration and unrealistic promises, initially by those who opposed the power, later on by the power holders themselves. When this impossible fails, the cloud of hopelessness starts dominating. This becomes even more perilous when this messianic structure of politics occurs in an atmosphere of resentment – caused by an intense mix of envy, humiliation and powerlessness – as it allows for anger to dominate society. Day by day, anger is snowballing through factual and virtual factors, the factual part of it being the economics and the virtual one the politicization of society.
The king, the rent and the banker
Kurdistan’s economy is three-fold. It has a mixture of systems of command, rentier and neoliberal economies. In contradiction with the classical rules of a market economy, the command economy is controlled by the government that employs one fifth of the population mostly in the security and other public sectors .
The rentier economy, as Alfred Marshall put it in the Principles of economics is a gift from nature. But in the modern case its externalities are rather significant. International oil companies supply annuity to the Kurdistan Regional Government economy and they are external to the whole local system.
When it comes to politics of anger, the important aspects of this rentier economy are that the big chunk of the government revenue does not depend on the citizens’ economic activities, or taxation. Oil constitutes about 85 percent of the Government’s fiscal revenues. However, the sector’s estimated share is only 1 percent of the region’s employment, as a World Bank adviser put it to me in 2017. Hence, a big source of powerlessness of the people.
When it comes to neoliberalism, it is rather tricky. There is a massive privatization of every sector, primarily health, education and electricity. The World Bank and its affiliated neoliberal institutions might have played an influential role in this. The current system is dubbed as socialist and hence, the private sector and privatization are seen as a panacea. While the reforms are yet to offer any substantial change in the revenue of the government it has impacted the population, especially the low-income masses immensely.
In the last winter, university colleges started to demonstrate in large numbers and in many cities. These mass demonstrations were unusual for the region. The basic demand was to reinstall their pocket money allowance. The PUK security sectors reacted strongly and used violence against the protestors. The students succeeded partially to force the government to reissue a supplement back. The spontaneity, apolitical nature and sheer size of the protests brought a glimpse of hope that the power of the people could prevail vis-à-vis the authority. Moreover, the protests against the cut of allowance was a protest against the neoliberal privatization in the region, not just against its oligarchic nature.
The neoliberal system shifted the Kurdistan society from a traditional non-market society into a globalized market system. For instance, when it comes to the health sector, one is almost shocked by the sheer number of clinics and physicians’ number in Kurdistan’s main cities. They are functioning as small institutions relying on patients and excessive use of medicine. The whole system relies on commodification of ill people. This market approach to health has negatively impacted the prevention sector, health education, as well as public health. In addition to these, big modern private hospitals are mushrooming at the expense of the public sector and their prices are sky high, generally unaffordable for the average Iraqi. As any emerging market society, the region is going through a process of commodification of non-commodities; patients for instance. A process described as a great transformation in other parts of the world where it is also being implemented.
All three systems of the KRG economy are unable to provide sufficient jobs in consideration to all the newly graduates reaching the employment age anymore. Furthermore, the public sector suffered from cuts and delays in the salary payments in the last few years while the energy sector is mostly run by expats. The emerging private sectors either hire poorly skilled workers, which doesn’t attract university graduates, or highly skilled workers which are generally beyond the local university graduate’s expertise. On top of these, there are systematic corruptions, nepotism, monopoly and widening gap between rich and poor, all exacerbating the frustration and anger within the Iraqi Kurdish society..
In Iraqi Kurdistan, this political and economic system has reached a cul-de-sac. Therefore, the game between those in power and the opposition political actors within (or other marginalized factions of the ruling parties), takes place through the different media, primarily social media, where each and every actor tries to mobilize its constituents.
Social media is largely sensational and hardly allows any space for a rational or reasoning dialogue. It is clear for the majority of the population that the elites have no problem with each other. The more they try to be different from each other, the more similar they appear. This hopeless background fuels anger. This anger is being utilized by different actors for self-interests. Currently, while dissatisfaction is at the highest, the region has no oppositional party or group to offer a different perspective.
In addition to the elites, people are angry at politics and institutions also. The intellectual class is fueling this situation. Bakhtyar Ali, one of the prominent authors in the region, denounces politics and politicians in such words: “I think that after a revolution a man needs a few years to get used to the new era. I knew from my limited and worthless experience that those who tear down and overcome an era cannot build another. Just as weapons can’t suddenly become flowers, a killer can’t suddenly turn gardener”. As he writes in his novel ‘I Stared at the Night of the City’.
The dominant anger made politics easy. Demagogues are becoming the democrats. People are getting depoliticized. Trust between citizens is eroding. After the last demonstration: a whisper stayed in the air for a while: was hope coming back?
Time showed us the demonstrations were yet more throes and turmoil in Kurdistan’s recent history. Politics of anger have not managed to shift the balance of power this time.