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No real alternative: The failure of opposition parties in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region

2024-06-20 18:04:43


Winthrop Rodgers - Middle East Institute

Politics in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region is centered on the ruling duopoly of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Both parties wield significant influence over the administration of state institutions, the economy, and the media. Tens of thousands of Peshmerga, security forces, and Asayish are at their disposal and hundreds of thousands of public servants are part of their patronage networks. Despite these advantages, they are deeply unpopular with wide swathes of the population, who view them as corrupt, incompetent, and oppressive. An Arab Barometer survey released in 2022 found that 63% of respondents in the Kurdistan Region had “no trust at all” in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Other political parties — broadly referred to as the opposition — offer themselves as alternatives to the KDP and the PUK, but are disorganized, divided, and largely unable to capitalize on public grievances about governance. At present, they do not constitute a viable alternative to the ruling parties.

This weakness is due to constraints imposed by the Kurdistan Region’s political culture and system, as well as the uninspiring profiles of the current crop of opposition parties. As a result, voters who are disillusioned with the KDP and the PUK have little to gain — and much to lose — by supporting the opposition. Many people opt out of electoral politics altogether.

Nevertheless, opposition groups represent a tantalizing part of the Kurdistan Region’s political landscape. Their dynamics and potential are critical to a comprehensive understanding of Iraqi Kurdish politics. This analysis will look at some of the main opposition groups and explain each group’s positioning and prospects in the upcoming regional elections, which were initially scheduled for October 2022 but repeatedly delayed. They are currently expected in the autumn.

Collectively, the opposition faces three main challenges. First, patronage networks and partisan control of the security forces and the state more generally reinforce the power of the ruling parties and give them decisive advantages over the opposition. Second, the current opposition parties have failed to unite as a broad front and, as a result, compete with each other for supporters, which dilutes their influence. Third, the opposition’s failure to articulate a strategic vision does not inspire confidence. Moreover, voters have learned lessons from the failure of the Gorran Movement and are wary of its successors.

A map of the opposition parties

Overall, the opposition can be divided into five groups: 1) The Gorran Movement, 2) The New Generation Movement, 3) the Islamist parties, 4) newly founded, personality-driven parties, and 5) the voters and activists who have become turned off from electoral politics, but nevertheless stand in opposition to the ruling parties.

The Gorran Movement

The most consequential opposition party in the Kurdistan Region during the post-2003 era is the Change Movement, usually known by its Kurdish name Gorran. It was founded in 2009 by Nawshirwan Mustafa, who had been a major figure in the PUK for decades. The new party declared that its explicit goal was to dismantle the KDP-PUK duopoly and bring about constitutional changes that would establish the KRG as a parliamentary democracy, in contrast to the presidential system favored by the KDP. It also promised to combat corruption and unify and depoliticize the Peshmerga and the security forces.

The new party sparked hope for many people that reform was possible. It quickly drew interest from across the population, with its support concentrated in Sulaymaniyah city. Several months after its establishment, it contested an election for the regional assembly in July 2009. While the KDP and the PUK — running on a joint list — won 30 and 29 seats respectively, out of the total of 111, Gorran managed a remarkable campaign and won 25 seats. This gave it a major platform to pursue its agenda, even if it could be overruled in the Kurdistan Parliament by the duopoly parties’ majority.

Later, Gorran earned some criticism for not standing more closely with anti-corruption protesters during the months-long demonstrations in 2011, but maintained its upstart reputation ahead of the 2013 elections. In those polls, the movement became the second-largest party in parliament: The KDP won 38 seats, Gorran took 24, and the PUK was shunted into third with 18 seats.

Somewhat paradoxically, this posed a major problem for Gorran and one that has haunted it ever since. It decided to abandon its opposition stance and go into government with the KDP and the PUK. It took over the speakership of the Kurdistan Parliament and supplied ministers to the eighth cabinet. In part, this decision was made in order to take the reins at the Peshmerga ministry and work on one of its major policy goals. Ultimately, Gorran proved ineffective at achieving anything substantive and crashed out of the cabinet amid a major dispute with the KDP in 2015 over the extension of Masoud Barzani’s term as president.

At this point, the party began to lose steam, winning just 12 seats in the 2018 elections for the Kurdistan Parliament and re-entering government with the KDP and the PUK. Its supporters began to feel that it had been co-opted into the system it proposed to dismantle. The party was subsequently wiped out at the federal level in the 2021 elections for the Iraqi parliament. Currently, the party is wracked with internal disagreements and disputes over its leadership structure. Its elected officials have largely left the party and joined new opposition groups. Heading into the next elections, it looks like an utterly spent force.

It is hard to overstate how disappointing this has been for opposition politics in the Kurdistan Region. Gorran’s trajectory dashed the hopes of many voters and produced deep wounds that have hurt not just the party itself, but all other opposition groups. If Gorran, with its unique leader and widespread support, could not achieve its goals, then it seems to most people that the other groups have little hope of succeeding where it failed.

The New Generation Movement

The New Generation Movement, known in Kurdish as Naway Nwe, was founded in early 2018 by Shaswar Abdulwahid, a real estate developer and owner of prominent Kurdish satellite TV channel NRT. (Full disclosure: The author worked as Senior English Editor at NRT between 2018 and 2021.) Abdulwahid was already well-known as a result of NRT’s outspoken coverage that frequently criticized the KDP and the PUK. During the 2017 independence referendum, he again played the role of foil by backing the No For Now” campaign, which argued that Kurdish independence is the ultimate goal but the timing of the vote was ill-judged. While the campaign failed to make much headway — 92% of voters supported “yes” — the experience encouraged Abdulwahid to jump into electoral politics.

New Generation participated in both the May 2018 federal elections and the September 2018 Kurdistan Parliament elections, winning four and eight seats respectively. However, disagreements between Abdulwahid and the party’s newly elected MPs in Baghdad and Erbil quickly arose. Eventually, none of the MPs elected to the federal Council of Representatives and just three of the MPs in the Kurdistan Parliament would remain a part of the party. In the October 2021 federal elections, the party rallied and won nine seats, mostly by taking advantage of the collapse in support for Gorran.

Seven years after its establishment, it is unclear what New Generation has accomplished. Its policy program is vague at best and, historically, it has relied on petty stunts to attract media attention. For the most part, the party’s stance is reactive, following whatever story is angering the public at a given moment (public sector salaries, gasoline prices, migration, water shortages, etc.), rather than driving the conversation, which seems odd for an organization with a prominent TV station. Strategically, its leadership is cognizant that voters roundly punished Gorran for working with the KDP and the PUK. As a result, Abdulwahid almost obsessively turns down opportunities to engage pragmatically with other parties — both ruling or opposition — who then respond in kind by ignoring New Generation.

Despite this poor track record, New Generation will likely end up as the largest opposition party in the next elections. The deficiencies of the other parties are enough to make it the most attractive option in an underwhelming field. Few of its supporters believe that it will make a substantial impact both because it has not articulated a coherent vision for the Kurdistan Region and its leadership is deeply mistrustful. There are decent, principled figures within the party, but it is evident to most voters and observers that New Generation is not the real deal.

The Islamist parties

The Kurdistan Region has always had a significant Islamist movement, which stands in contrast to the relative secularism of the KDP and the PUK. The movement largely operates at a social and grassroots level, but is also active in electoral politics. There have been several Islamist parties, which have splintered, merged, and reorganized themselves over time. At present, there are two main Islamist parties: the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) and the Kurdistan Justice Group (KJG).

The KIU, which is known in Kurdish as Yekgirtu, was founded in 1994 and is led by Salahaddin Bahaaddin. It is particularly strong in Duhok governorate. In the 2021 elections for the Iraqi parliament, Jamal Kocher, a KIU member running as an independent, won 56,702 votes. This was the most of any individual candidate across the whole country that cycle. The party currently has four seats in Baghdad and had five seats in the last Kurdistan Parliament. Some observers have linked the KIU with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The KJG was formed in 2001 by Ali Bapir. It used to be known as the Kurdistan Islamic Group before a rebranding in 2021 and is referred to in Kurdish as Komal. It currently has one seat in Baghdad and had seven in the last Kurdistan Parliament. The KJG tends to be more socially conservative and outspoken than the KIU.

On their own and collectively, the Islamist parties do not represent a significant threat to the ruling duopoly. Instead, their approach emphasizes building support within society for Islamist attitudes. For example, both parties have proposed and supported measures that attack the LGBTQ+ community. However, they seem largely uninterested in seeking higher-level positions within the government beyond a few seats in parliament. By doing so, they maintain a seat at the broad table of governance in the Kurdistan Region and the ability to influence the ruling parties, while avoiding the responsibilities of actual governing. This pragmatic approach starkly contrasts with New Generation.

New personality-driven parties

With election season approaching, two disaffected figures from established parties have sensed an opportunity and formed their own political vehicles. These new parties are largely defined by their leaders, rather than being driven by a specific ideology or set of policies. They are viewed by voters as bids for continued relevance, rather than the kind of broad-based movements that could pose a real challenge to the ruling parties, at least for now.

The most authentically opposition of the two is Ali Hama Salih’s National Stance Movement. Hama Salih is a former Gorran MP with a reputation for exposing alleged instances of corruption on the part of KDP and PUK officials. As his former party crumbled, Salih was able to keep his political reputation intact by distancing himself from the Gorran leadership and resigning from parliament in February 2023. Out of office, he attempted to bring together other Gorran dissidents to form a new party that could recapture the old energy. This was largely unsuccessful because of the personal differences between the ex-Gorran factions, but he went ahead and established a new party anyway in March 2024. Hama Salih’s rhetoric often skews conservative. Recently, he has decried the new, strange norms” being introduced into Kurdish society from outside.

The other personality-driven party is led by former PUK co-leader Lahur Sheikh Jangi. He had been popular with the party’s grassroots, particularly for his strong criticism of the KDP and the Barzanis. In July 2021, however, he was ousted by his estranged cousin (and now uncontested PUK leader) Bafel Talabani. For several years afterwards, it was unclear whether Sheikh Jangi would form a new party or seek accommodation and reconciliation within the PUK. Eventually, he chose the former and announced the establishment of the People's Front in January 2024.

Both of these parties are defined by their leaders. This is not unusual in the patriarchal, top-down party structures common in the Kurdistan Region, but it exposes a deep flaw in their strategies. Their success is dependent on the personal appeal of their leaders, which is necessarily limiting. In Hama Salih’s case, his inability to convince the other Gorran dissidents, who are his natural political allies, to join him suggests that he does not have the leadership skills to manage a party organization. Meanwhile, Sheikh Jangi carries the baggage of his split with the PUK and will have difficulty bringing his former comrades with him into the new party or attracting authentic opposition supporters. Moreover, he is perceived as having grown close with Masrour Barzani of the KDP as part of his struggle with Bafel Talabani. The mere appearance of working with such a hated figure undercuts his personal and political reputation, whatever the truth may actually be about their relationship. As a result, it seems unlikely that either new party will have much of an impact at the ballot box or in sparking policy change.

Turning away from partisan politics

The dominance of the ruling duopoly, the disillusionment with Gorran, and the perceived unsuitability of the other opposition parties mean that many voters are left without a party that they can enthusiastically support. As a result, they stay at home on election day. Turnout has been steadily dropping in each election for the Kurdistan Parliament since 1992, when 87% of eligible voters cast ballots. Turnout was 75% during both of the Gorran elections” in 2009 and 2013, but dropped to 60% in 2018. This is comparatively better than the turnout in recent federal elections, but the trendline is not encouraging. Moreover, low-turnout elections tend to benefit the ruling parties.

This says more about elections in the Kurdistan Region and their ability to create legitimacy than it does about overall levels of political activity within society. Across social and class groups, Iraqi Kurds have a high degree of political engagement and sophistication — in many ways, far greater than their counterparts in the West. Decreasing turnout and a lack of support for opposition groups reflects a fundamental disconnect in Kurdish politics between the electoral process and the prospects for actually creating change. Looking at the situation, it is hard to blame people for feeling that their vote does not matter.

Many people are actively looking for alternatives to party politics. This is clearly seen in the experience of the Dissenting Teachers Council. Over the past year, it organized a strike in Sulaymaniyah governorate to pressure the KRG about unpaid public sector salaries that lasted for five months. What the public saw was a highly disciplined and effective political movement that drove the popular conversation about its signature issue. Members of the Council told The Middle East Institute in recent interviews that they have been repeatedly approached by both the ruling and opposition parties about running for parliament. They consistently refused such entreaties and have also resisted calls from supporters to form their own electoral list. This shows that opposition politics is still active, but that the ballot box currently holds little appeal.


Voters are deeply frustrated about the political direction of the Kurdistan Region and disillusioned about the prospect for creating change through elections. On the one hand, this reflects the significant challenges that any opposition group faces in competing with the ruling parties and their structural advantages. The KDP and the PUK control the security forces — and are not shy about using violence and intimidation to enforce their political will — and oversee pervasive patronage networks that shape political behavior in insidious ways. The ruling parties largely control the media, with notable exceptions like New Generation-owned NRT, and are deeply embedded in state institutions like the judiciary. Even when opposition groups like Gorran make a play for power, the prospects for success are low and the risk of co-option is high.

The recent controversy over the timing of the upcoming elections to the Kurdistan Parliament is instructive. Elections are moments of maximum exposure and leverage for opposition groups, when the ruling parties actually have to face their constituents. There are real questions about how free and fair these elections are, but they offer opposition groups time and space to make appeals to voters. After an election, the ruling parties either co-opt opposition groups, as they did with Gorran, or ignore them, as they do with New Generation.

Yet, the opposition has been a total non-factor in the dynamics around the repeatedly postponed elections, which were initially supposed to take place in October 2022. Other than issuing the occasional statement urging elections to go ahead as planned, the opposition was invisible. If there had been a groundswell of support for these parties, they may have been able to organize street protests or exert other kinds of pressure on Baghdad, the KDP, and the PUK to force them into action. However, this was not at all in evidence. As of writing, a new date has not been announced, but informed speculation suggests that the elections will be held by November at the latest. Depending on the results, the opposition parties may or may not be a factor in the government formation process, which is likely to be long, difficult, and divisive.

The opposition’s failure to grasp this moment is due to its inability to present a united front or to articulate a compelling vision for what exactly they would do if given power. As a result, opposition support is naturally diluted. Fractured voting patterns pose little threat to the ruling parties and overt division between opposition groups turns off potential supporters, as does their inability to propose realistic plans for reform. To that end, opposition parties have a tough hill to climb because of the outsize power of the ruling parties, but ultimately blame must fall on opposition groups themselves for failing to address their own flaws.


Winthrop Rodgers is a journalist and researcher who focuses on politics, human rights, and political economy. His past work has appeared in Foreign Policythe Index on CensorshipAl-Monitor, and Rest of World

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