It was a triumph of democracy. On July 25, in a free election, Iraq’s Kurds finally elected a real opposition party to their regional parliament.
According to preliminary results, the Change Party won 25 of the 111 seats in the parliament, breaking the monopoly of the traditional parties.
But this democratic shift also suggests that Iraq’s Kurds are going to lose again.
Lose, that is, in terms of their objectives as defined by their leaders over the past 20 years. Those goals included an independent Kurdish state in what is now northern Iraq, or at least a region so autonomous and self-sufficient that it was independent for all practical purposes.
For the government of that region to be self-sufficient, it had to control the oil-producing area around the city of Kirkuk.
Achieving such ambitious goals required unshakeable unity, for the Kurds are only six million of Iraq’s 30 million people, and neither the Arabs of Iraq nor their other neighbours, the Turks and the Iranians, like the idea of a Kurdish state.
The outcome of this month’s election shows that the reflexive unity among the Kurds is fading.
It is fading partly because younger Kurds are fed up with the corrupt and oppressive rule of their traditional leaders, who have dominated Kurdish affairs for more than a generation.
The Barzani family reigns in the west of Kurdistan. The Talabani family rules the east. And both families have become very, very rich.
So long as independence or something very like it was the long-term goal, the traditional leaders could demand and get the obedience of most Kurds.
But now that a measure of stability is returning to Arab Iraq, the prospect of Kurdish independence is dwindling — and there is even a dawning suspicion that the KDP/PUK alliance has left it too late to take control of Kirkuk.
In that case, what’s the point of leaving them in charge of everything?
One sign of the changing balance of power is the fact that the election on July 25 was not accompanied, as planned, by a referendum on the draft Kurdish constitution, an explosive document that declares oil-rich Kirkuk and other disputed areas to be “historically” and “geographically” part of the Kurdish homeland.
Since those areas are currently under Arab rule, entrenching this claim in the Kurdish constitution would lead to confrontations.
In retrospect, it’s clear that the only time when the Kurds might have achieved their ambitions was right after the U.S. invasion of 2003. To do so, however, they would have had to defy their only ally, the United States.
Fearing a clash with the Americans, they did not seize Kirkuk and ensure an overwhelming Kurdish majority there when they had the military power to do so. Fearing a Turkish invasion, they did not dare to declare independence.
Now they can do neither, for Iraq has a functioning army again and Kurdistan’s whole budget depends on oil revenues sent north by Baghdad.
This is not necessarily a tragedy. A prosperous, democratic, secular Kurdistan, using its own language and running its own institutions, within a rather less democratic Arab-majority Iraq that hands over a fair share of oil revenues and leaves the Kurdish minority alone, would be an outcome beyond the wildest dreams of previous generations of Kurds.
It is still within reach. And it doesn’t need the Talabanis and Barzanis at all.
Gwynne Dyer is a freelance Canadian journalist and author living in London. His latest book, Climate Wars, was published recently in Canada by Random House.