Unpaid salaries and corruption fuel public anger in Iraqi Kurdistan

Unpaid salaries and corruption fuel public anger in Iraqi Kurdistan
In-depth: With economic woes exacerbated by Covid-19 and the KRG's heavy-handed response to public anger, protests are expected to re-emerge in the future.
7 min read
16 December, 2020
Iraqi Kurdistan has witnessed days of ongoing protests against the political leadership. [Getty]
Demonstrators have taken to the streets across Iraq's Kurdish region for over a week to protest unpaid public sector salaries, economic deterioration and rampant corruption.

Tensions are high as several towns in Iraqi Kurdistan have witnessed days of ongoing protests against the political leadership over salaries, high unemployment and a lack of basic services. 

Northern Iraq's Kurdish authorities are trying to contain public anger as the death toll from demonstrations has risen to at least eight, with over one hundred injured as of Sunday, according to media reports. 

Speaking to The New Arab, Kurdish journalist Renwar Najm confirmed that at least eight protesters had died and dozens were left wounded by the end of last week, citing information shared by victims' relatives on social media.

Demonstrations erupted in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah on 3 December and spread to a number of towns such as Halabja, Sayed Sadiq, Piramagrun, Ranya, Qaladze, Dukan, Arbat, Kalar, Kfri and Penjwen.  

Hundreds have been rallying in the north-eastern province of Sulaimaniyah against two main political blocs, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Security forces used tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition against protesters. 

Demonstrators have taken to the streets for over a week to protest unpaid public sector salaries, economic deterioration and rampant corruption

Angry crowds set fire to local government buildings and political parties' headquarters including offices of the KDP and the PUK, which they accuse of corruption. 

Rebaz Majeed, a Kurdish journalist and photographer, wrote on Twitter: "I've never witnessed protests like these in Iraqi Kurdistan. It is very organized and un-organized at the same time. The protestors are rarely above age 25. They have no leader. They don't have particular demands."

In response to the torching of party offices, local authorities imposed curfews, blocked roads and shut down opposition television channel NRT along with internet and social media across the region to prevent demonstrators from mobilising. Various local media outlets received government warnings for covering the protests.

Read more: In Iraqi Kurdistan, plunging oil prices raise 
fears of economic collapse

Najm told The New Arab there had been a large deployment of security personnel and Kurdish Peshmerga troops with military vehicles in most towns of Sulaimaniyah governorate in the last few days, and rounds of arrests targeting residents who attempted to stage demonstrations.

He made reference to local media reports indicating that over 50 protesters were rounded up in the town of Rania only last Wednesday. Despite that, the local reporter mentioned that "groups of ten to fifteen people in several locations gathered and burned tyres" to express their anger, then were quickly chased by security forces. 

Though some protesters have been released in the past few days, many others are still being held behind bars. Raman Ghavami, a Middle East analyst and consultant who previously worked in Iraqi Kurdistan, found clear exasperation among Kurds from many different sectors in society on his last visit to the region early this month. 

"People were saying they cannot see a change as long as the two parties who have ruled Kurdistan for nearly 30 years are in power, many were even talking about taking up arms," Ghavami told The New Arab. "They are really fed up, unemployment is very high, there isn't any development in the region". 

Kurdistan's Prime Minister Masrour Barzani has blamed the federal government in Baghdad for not making budget transfers needed to make wage payments. "The delay in salaries has not been the fault of the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG]," he said in a TV news conference last Wednesday.

They are really fed up, unemployment is very high, there isn't any development in the region

"It was the result of us waiting for Baghdad to send the region's budget share." Barzani also said the right to peaceful protest was "vital" and slammed the violence as "unacceptable". The premier's televised speech was received by demonstrators with great disappointment. 

"You militarise the streets of Kurdistan, kill protesters, still tell them they have the right to protest? They are protesting for unpaid salaries, job opportunities +overhauling a broken system, 8 people are killed but Kurdistan's PM doesn't have the courage to admit failure," tweeted Dara Salam, a teaching fellow at SOAS University of London who has written on Kurdish issues.

When asked by a reporter from a local media channel if a violent protest would solve his problems, a young protester replied: "We are left with no choice, we tried with our pens, we tried with peaceful demonstrations, but no one listened to us." 

Although triggered by unpaid public sector salaries, the rallies have been largely driven by unemployed young people. "We have no money, no food, no work. We're not going to stop until we get rid of this government'", Simona Foltyn, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Baghdad, quoted one demonstrator in a tweet

Najm highlighted that the main problem pushing Kurdish people onto the streets is the level of corruption and injustice they have seen in the past three decades. 

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"These are not isolated incidents nor the first revolts we've been witnessing in the last ten years, and people have seen no solutions," the Sulaimaniyah-based journalist said. "The KRG is dealing with protesting crowds by force, this will only delay a social explosion," he added, hinting that demonstrations though suppressed are likely to re-emerge. 

Aside from the central government's transfers, oil exports are Kurdistan's main source of revenue. Prior cabinets in Baghdad have withheld budget allocations to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region as punishment for its independent oil export policy, however the KRG has appeared unwilling to deliver its oil to the Iraqi capital in exchange for almost 12 percent share of the federal budget. 

While the Kurdish territory can strike its own deals, it is supposed to share revenues with Baghdad under a budget agreement. Tensions between the federal government and the KRG have been rising since a fiscal deficit bill was passed last month under which the northern Iraqi region is set to hand over an unspecified amount of its oil revenue to the federal government in order to receive its share of budget from Baghdad for Kurdistan's civil servant salaries. 

The central government has seen its oil revenues, which support 90 percent of Iraq's budget, sharply decline since the oil price crash in 2014. Iraq's Kurdish public workers have since struggled with delays in payment and cuts to their wages, and more recently the economy has been hit hard by coronavirus lockdowns. 

Local citizens and many Kurdish MPs have raised an energy pact between the KRG and Turkey being the main reason behind the region's financial woes amidst allegations that senior officials within the ruling parties are hiding real revenue numbers from exporting oil through Turkey. 

We are left with no choice, we tried with our pens, we tried with peaceful demonstrations, but no one listened to us

Seven years ago, KRG President Nechirvan Barzani, then prime minister, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed a 50-year energy deal to export Kurdish oil, a constant concern for the Iraqi government which is trying to claim a share of the profits.  

Ghavami doubts an agreement between the federal government and the KRG is likely to materialise any time soon. "The KDP and PUK are not up for compromising. Baghdad, for its part, wants to get the upper hand because it needs oil resources in the Kurdish region to cover part of the country's budget, and it wishes to have a weak - not sovereign - Kurdistan next door," he argued.

Pointing to underlying issues such as poor governance, corruption and lack of transparency, the analyst remarked that the Kurdish population is "losing faith" in the whole system and there is growing disconnection between the leadership and people who even "ignore" what the regional government's strategy is. 

Read more: 'They are still trying to silence us': One year
on, Iraq's youth rise again

With low oil prices and budgetary disputes, along with the economic impact of Covid-19 and the KRG's heavy-handed response to citizen's anger, exacerbating problems, street rallies are expected to re-appear in the future, analysts say. 

A group of activists, teachers, clerics and lawyers gathered in Kirkuk on Saturday to show solidarity with the protesters across Kurdistan, calling on the authorities to refrain from using violence and work on improving people's lives. 

"Teachers, civil servants and members of all classes have taken to the streets to demand their livelihood. But unfortunately, no one is listening to them. Instead of meeting their demands, the authorities answer them with bullets and tear gas and arrest them," a statement issued at a press conference during the gathering read.

In an analysis published on Rudaw news network, Farhad Alaaldin, chairman of the Iraq Advisory Council, warned that demonstrations could spread into cities like Erbil and Duhok, and added that the KRG's economic hardship will further deepen with the collapse of Iraq's economic and financial situation. He considers reform the only way forward for Kurdistan. 

"The Kurdish leadership needs to start implementing the reform law passed in its parliament in February 2020. This law is an excellent first step to stop corruption, enhance the public sector, and institutionalise the government."

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec