Anger is simmering among Iraq’s Kurdish youth

In Iraq’s Kurdish region, a new generation is coming of age which has seen only two parties in power – KDP and PUK.

Kurdish youth
Adel Hassan and his friends are worried about job prospects after graduation. Over 20 percent of Kurdish youth who are out of the work force have lost hope to find a job [Mariya Petkova/Al Jazeera]

Erbil, Iraq – It has been more than a month since Iraq’s Kurdish region held its parliamentary election, and a new Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is yet to be announced. Currently, intense negotiations are taking place between the two main political players in the region – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – dispelling speculations that their decades-old power-sharing agreement had come to an end after the severe political fallout from last year’s independence referendum.

But as the two parties are busy evening out their differences and haggling over ministerial posts, there does not seem to be much enthusiasm about the new KDP-PUK government, especially among the youth. 

“I’m 23 years old. Since I was a child, I’ve only seen the PUK and the KDP in control of the region,” says college student Adel Hassan.

“I never saw a good thing these parties did for the Kurdish people. I think there is no hope coming from those parties,” he says, sitting with four friends from college in a cafe under Erbil’s millennia-old citadel.

Hassan was born during the civil war between the PUK and the KDP which lasted three years and ended with the Washington agreement brokered by the Clinton administration and signed in 1998 by PUK’s leader Jalal Talabani and his KDP counterpart, Masoud Barzani. Since then, the two parties have ruled the Kurdish region under a power-sharing scheme, as the international community, and particularly the US, have encouraged them to stay united in power.

But many young people like Hassan are increasingly seeing this arrangement as part of the problem in Iraq’s crisis-stricken Kurdish region, rather than the solution.

“There is a lot of corruption here because of the political parties, they are stealing the money. They are building big projects for their parties’ benefit and the people close to these parties are getting benefits,” says 21-year-old Rajan Mohammed, sitting across from Hassan. “They are not paying salaries, they are not providing services, they are stealing our oil. Parties here are based on families, on family relations – this is one of the main reason for corruption.”

Unlike the older generations, young Iraqi Kurds, such as Hassan and Mohammed, did not witness the nationalist uprisings Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani led against the regime in Baghdad in the 1980s and 1990s, which have been their main source of their legitimacy. At the same time, many young people face growing socio-economic difficulties which a deepening political and economic crisis in the Kurdish region have brought about.

According to Renad Mansour, a research fellow at the London-based policy institute Chatham House, the KDP and PUK are increasingly losing ground among the Kurdish youth.

“These youths, they’ve only known one kind of leaders – or make it simpler – they’ve only known a few families who have run the entire system,” he says, referring to the two prominent families, which lead the KDP (the Barzanis) and the PUK (the Talabanis).

“Most of [them] remain disenfranchised and disillusioned from the political process, from Suleimaniyah to even Erbil and Dohuk. They can’t find jobs, they are finding difficulty, […] they don’t feel the KRG has done enough to respond to their needs.”

For Hassan, the prospect of being unemployed or underemployed is indeed causing much anxiety. He and some of his friends readily point the finger at the KDP and PUK as being responsible for this situation.

“I think will be seeking a good job for 20 years [after graduation]. Most of those who graduated in 2014 are still without a job today. Those who got the jobs are people supported by some politicians or by people in the government,” says 20-year-old Aziz Mawlood, another of Hassan’s friends at the cafe.

More than a quarter of the population in the Kurdish region is aged 18 to 34 and much of it is suffering from high unemployment and increasing disillusionment. A demographic survey released in July by the Kurdish Region Statistics Office shows that over 20 percent of youth aged 18-34 have left the work force because they have “lost hope in finding a job”. Of those who are still searching for a job aged 18-24, nearly 30 percent cannot find one.

“I’m studying here, in the area which is under KDP control – the yellow zone. In the college, anyone – a professor, a doctor – if he’s not one of the KDP supporters, he cannot get any high position in the college. Even in the student committees, the members have to be KDP supporters,” says Mawlood.

Each of the two parties informally controls a geographic area in the Kurdish region: KDP – the northwest, or the so-called yellow zone with de-facto capital Erbil (which is also the capital of the region); PUK – the southeast, or the green zone, with de-facto capital Sulaimaniyah. Both parties also retain control over their own Peshmerga forces which man checkpoints between Erbil and Sulaimaniyah.

This arrangement has allowed the KDP and PUK to extend their control over various parts of the public sphere through vast clientelistic networks, which some youth like Hassan, Mawloud and Mohammed, see as a major barrier to accessing economic opportunities.

But among Hassan’s friends, there are also two who support the KDP. They both voted for the party in the September 30 elections – one, who refused to give his name, said he did so because he proudly supports the party; the other – 20-year-old Sarkawt Qader – because he worried about disunity among Kurds and supported the idea of a one-party government.

Hassan himself could not vote because he was born outside the borders of the Kurdish region, while Mohammed decided not cast a ballot because she “was angry”. Mawloud voted for one of the opposition parties.

According to Hogr Shekha, Chairman of the Public Aid Organisation and an election observer, the KDP and the PUK have managed to engage part of the youth into the political structures and patronage networks, but their political pull among younger people is continuously dwindling.

The electoral commission does not release statistics on youth participation in the elections, but in Shekha’s estimate, turnout in the youngest age group was the lowest among all age groups in the September 30 vote. This year’s vote saw 58 percent of eligible voters turn out to polling stations – the lowest overall turnout since the Kurdish region gained autonomy. Some observers like Shekha doubt the validity of the official number, claiming the turnout was below 50 percent. 

“The number of young people rejecting the political process [in the Kurdish region] is increasing for a number of reasons: the shrinking freedoms, the lack of opportunities and the worsening economic situation,” he says.

In his opinion, this trend will continue, as the new Kurdish government is unlikely to be able to significantly improve the economic situation.

For Mansour, disillusionment with the political process among the youth and other parts of the Iraqi Kurdish society could be dangerous for the KRG.

“If the patronage networks are no longer able to be sustained, if the Kurds become increasingly aggrieved because they don’t have their daily needs [met], and if they realise they can’t change things through democratic institutions, there is going to be some kind of conflict between the citizens and the elite, probably a protest movement to begin [with],” he says.

Iraq’s Kurdish region has seen sporadic protests over the past few years across both KDP and PUK-dominated areas. In December last year, six protesters were killed and dozens wounded after an angry crowd stormed party headquarters and government buildings in Sulaimaniyah. Earlier this year, civil servants, teachers and doctors took to the streets of Erbil to protest salary cuts and payment delays; the police forces dispersed the crowd with tear gas, beating and arresting dozens.

Eight years ago, when the economic situation was much better, the region also saw mass protests. In early 2011, the ripple effects of the Arab Spring inspired thousands to take to the streets, angry at the corruption of the KRG; demonstrations took place at Kurdish universities. However, the protest wave was short-lived and was effectively suppressed by a sever security crackdown.

Both Mansour and Shekha agree that despite the simmering anger among the youth, a “Kurdish spring” is unlikely; a possible protest movement, in their opinion, would be organised and contained within the political opposition.

Yet, the kind of despair among the youth that kindled the Arab uprisings in 2010-2011 is increasingly evident in the Kurdish region’s growing exodus of young people. Hundreds of Iraqi Kurds have died each year since 2014 trying to migrate to Europe to seek a better life; the latest victim earlier this month was 19-year-old Danar Fatih Ahmed from the village of Chinara, near Sulaimaniyah.

At the cafe under Erbil’s citadel, pessimism seemed to be the dominant sentiment.

“For me, I don’t have any hope for the future,” says Hassan.