Comparing Iraqi Kurdistan with Turkey’s Kurdish dynamics

Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), recently visited Washington to ask for more American military and political assistance.

The military assistance the KRG needs is primarily in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL). Political assistance, on the other hand, is mainly for the longer-term Kurdish agenda of independence. The independence agenda, of course, is a much more delicate issue for the White House. The last thing the administration of US President Barack Obama wants is to further complicate already thorny relations between Baghdad and Arbil.

Yet, Barzani is understandably frustrated with Baghdad. The Iraqi administration has failed to honor its recent financial and oil agreement with Arbil. As a result, the fiscal situation in Iraqi Kurdistan continues to be extremely precarious. Add to this the fragility of the security situation, with Mosul and large swaths of land occupied by jihadists, and you can understand why the overall picture of Kurdistan in Iraq is far from attractive in the eyes of external observers. The tribal nature of Kurdish politics Iraq and the corruption that comes with such patronage is an additional factor that creates concerns for the future of Iraqi Kurdistan.

After all, an economy based on oil, politics based on tribal patronage and a security situation threatened by ISIL and tense relations with Baghdad are not very promising dynamics. Now let’s compare these dynamics with north of the border by looking at the Kurdish situation in Turkey. At first, this may seem like comparing apples and oranges. After all, the Kurds of Turkey don’t have autonomy, their political structure is less tribal and their economy is not based on oil. But it is exactly these factors that may eventually help Turkey’s Kurds to forge a better future with stronger institutions and more organic links with the rest of the country. The strongest Kurdish political party in Turkey is well placed to win more than 10 percent of the national vote in the upcoming parliamentary election.

This is mainly because the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is enjoying unprecedented popularity outside its traditional constituency. In some ways, the HDP is the political wing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the PKK’s support for the peace process and conciliatory statements from the PKK’s top field commander toward Turkey are also likely to help the HDP win support. Party leader Selahattin Demirtai’s opposition to Erdogan’s presidentialist ambitions as well as his liberal agenda are resonating with disappointed Justice and Development Party (AKP) voters and the anti-AKP camp that has lost faith in the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The PKK has significantly expanded its diplomatic, economic, military and political power both in Turkey and the region. Its fight against ISIL has boosted its international image as an effective fighting force and as a secular group that respects women’s and minority rights. If the HDP plays its hand wisely, the Kurds could pick up where the AKP has left off as a driving force of democratization.

They have much to learn from the early years of the AKP, when President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was considered an “agent of change.” When Erdogan swept to power 13 years ago, he presented himself as the man who would put Turkish democracy back on track after the lost decade of the 1990s, when Turkey was plagued by political and economic instability. Now the HDP has a chance to become the kingmaker of Turkish politics. The party could steer the country into a democratic system of decentralization and empower the institutions that guarantee the rule of law, accountability and transparency. The HDP’s liberal, democratic and progressive image has already become a beacon for a better tomorrow.

Since Turkey’s Kurdish regions don’t have oil, a future Kurdish federation or an autonomous Kurdish region will have to rely on good relations with Ankara and improved economic productivity and human capital at home. Compared with the tribal, corrupt, autocratic and oil-based dynamics of Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey’s Kurdish experiment could very well provide a much better model for good governance. Time will tell.