How did the Kurdistan Region’s strongest opposition movement come to its fall?

14-10-2021 02:44
After the departure of Nawshirwan Mustafa, the Founder and leader of the Gorran Movement, the party weakened. Photo: Surkew Mohammed/Peregraf

Peregraf- Surkew Mohammed

The Kurdistan Region’s once-strongest voice of opposition won a shocking 25 seats in total in the Kurdish parliamentary election when it was founded twelve years ago, but suffered the biggest defeat in this week’s elections.

As Iraq was moving closer to holding its fifth parliamentary elections on October 10, Kurdish parties made efforts to form a broad alliance and join the Iraqi parliament as one force, but failed to do so.

Similarly, a few months before campaigns kicked off some members in the Change (Gorran) Movement wanted to convince their leader to join forces with all the Kurdish parties other than the two long-standing ruling parties, namely the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and  Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Gorran has been divided between members who disapprove of the party’s recent policies and participation in the government and those who, well, endorse it - among them their leader, Omer Said Ali. 

The dissidents held a meeting with the secretary-general of the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), Salahaddin Bahadin. They tried to convince their leader to form a Kurdish coalition through Bahadin, because the two sides have cut off direct communication and negotiation with each other since their problems emerged following the death of the movement’s former leader and founder, Nawshirwan Mustafa.

But what they find disappoints them and leads to their eventual defeat, a senior Gorran official spoke to Peregraf on the condition of anonymity.

Bahadin visited the party’s headquarters but the Gorran leader had told him they had plans to meet with the Kurdistan Region’s president to form a five-party alliance with the PUK, KDP, KIU and the Kurdistan Justice Group (Komal). Bahadin makes it clear that they "will not join a coalition with the KDP and PUK in it." 

Ali’s attempt at the five-party alliance eventually did not succeed, leaving the movement to join forces with their former rival in previous elections: the PUK. 

Although the majority of both parties' supporters are within the same geographical locations, Gorran’s leadership was unable to run a proper campaign as it failed to reorganize itself and reconcile with the dissidents within their party.

It lost the five seats it had in the previous round. They received only 18,358 votes for their seven candidates in Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Kirkuk. While the KIU’s two seats in the Iraqi parliament became four as its votes increased.

The senior source noted he believes one of the main reasons the movement suffered the biggest blow is "turning their back on the people and turning to power."

"They know very well that it’s not the same Gorran it used to be," he said. "They have turned to gain power and money. They don’t have clear and brave stances, while Gorran’s supporters are different, they expect courageous standpoints."

When asked why the movement refused to form the coalition that was exempt from the KDP and the PUK as was expected of them by their supporters, a senior Gorran official replied: "In fact, it was clear that people wanted that from us, but there was a dominant voice within Gorran's leadership that the movement is in a bad situation and political agreement with the ruling parties were more important and useful for Gorran, and that this will resolve things not people’s opinion, but the result of this election proved that this was wrong."

After the preliminary election results were released, Gorran acknowledged their defeat, apologized to the public and promised to make radical changes. 

They took their first step seventy-two hours after the election when the movement’s executive cell, which is the highest executive body in the movement, made up of a general organizer and six other members, announced its resignation.

"To take responsibility in this sensitive stage, the Gorran Movement's executive cell has decided to resign. Meanwhile, a temporary team will be put together as soon as possible to run the movement," they said in a statement.

Nonetheless, the movement has hopes to pick itself up from the fall, believing that many of those who boycotted the election is Gorran voters and can be reconciled with.

Boycott has been prevalent throughout the past four parliamentary elections and remained that way this year with a 41 percent turnout across Iraq. In Sulaimaniyah province, which has the highest number of Gorran voters, only 37 percent of voters cast their ballots. 

Hawkar Mahmood, a young man who had campaigned with a navy flag on the streets day and night for the movement, boycotted the election this year.

"I didn't go to vote and I don't trust anyone," said the young man from Sulaimaniyah. "Gorran has lost our trust. They are allies with the KDP in Erbil and with the PUK in Sulaimaniyah, why should I vote for it? What's their difference between the rest of them?"

Mahmood said many of his friends and relatives who used to vote for Gorran now don't trust them and have boycotted. "If Gorran returns to its true self and their position from the Kak Nawshirwan era, other people and we will vote for it and campaign for it."

Gorran was founded by Nawshirwan Mustafa and a number of former PUK officials. The movement first participated in the 2009 Kurdish parliamentary elections and won 25 out of 100 seats. The two ruling parties, especially the PUK, were shocked at this. The year after, they won eight seats in the Iraqi parliamentary elections.

"Former Gorran voters are the most aware in society, because they were able to punish a force for the first time for their failures in keeping their promises. I hope supporters of other parties do the same as Gorran supporters," Harem Ali wrote in a comment to the party.

When Gorran published the movement's apologies and promised change on their official page, dozens voiced their concern or support for the movement's defeat.

"Congratulations on the results, you were the ones who cared more for status and power than the voters. You should pay the price. Voters did what was their responsibility and boycotting won. All the parties have realized that they have lost all respect," said Bzhew Salih Kunjrini. 

"Gorran voters asked for change but you didn’t listen to anyone. You drove away all those loyal to Gorran and joined a failed government, you couldn’t reform and didn’t let the loyal people of Gorran continue, hence the outcome," he added.

There were also those who praised the movement for being the voice of dissent. "If it weren't for Gorran, people wouldn't have even been able to write committees freely. Thank you Gorran for opening people’s eyes and making people own up to will and rights," one person wrote.

The death of Nawshirwan Mustafa and Gorran's change

Gorran’s problems are many, each official you talk to will give you a list they think is the source for the defeat, and that includes decision-making and their political stances, rapprochement and agreement with the KDP and the PUK and its participation in the government.

Mustafa was a prominent figure in the past 50 years’ political and armed struggle of the Kurds in the Kurdistan Region. Enemies and friends remember fighting corruption, humility, and unworldliness with the mention of his name.

In the first election in 2018 after Mustafa’s death, Gorran lost half of their votes. While he was alive, voters cast half a million ballots every time in the Iraqi and Kurdish elections between 2009 to 2013, hoping for radical change in the shared governance of the PUK and KDP. 

Adnan Osman, a former member of Gorran’s executive cell, attributes the movement's defeat to two reasons, one moving away from people and closer to the government. Two, the death of Mustafa. 

"The second reason is related to Kak Nawshirwan himself. He was an experienced and trustworthy person, but since 2014 and before got sick, he gradually handed over the movement to his old friends, and then after he got sick his old friends completely took over the movement and its decisions, they brought people close to them into the leadership organs," said Osman. 

"They were running the movement according to their understanding and mentality, not with the mentality Gorran was built on. They wanted power more, they had been previously in the government, so they dreamt of bringing Gorran closer and its participation in the government," he added.

Osman believes that regaining people’s trust requires massive change, and he sees that as a very difficult task. "Gorran has been steered towards a different direction. A system has been fixed within the movement that will still remain even if the organizer or the executive cell were changed. The whole system must be dismantled, the direction and manner of Gorran’s way of working must be changed, which requires great will. I do not see this will." 

Mustafa's movement raised the voice of opposition in parliament for the first time and shook the political landscape in the Kurdistan Region, it was embracing the PUK and KDP dissidents and with that it became the strongest opposition force in the Kurdistan Region Parliament. 

However, the movement lasted only four years as an opposition, and started joining the government after it won 24 seats in the 2013 parliamentary elections in the Kurdistan Region. 

The movement saw many ups and downs following its leader’s death. In November 2015, the head of parliament who was Gorran-affiliated, was prevented from entering Erbil, and Gorran ministers and officials were removed from the government in a decision by the KDP’s politburo due to problems they had, but then rejoined in forming the ninth cabinet led by KDP’s Masrour Barzani in 2019. 

Gorran had good ties with the PUK back when it was led by Jalal Talabani. They had agreements in 2012 to make changes in the Kurdistan Region’s political formula. The agreement was officially signed four years later between the two sides, but both leaders succumbed to their illnesses and died in 2017, and the agreement to this day is unimplemented.

Gorran officials currently have said they will move on with the agreement, and that they have formed the alliance for the election with the PUK aiming to re-establish the close ties they had, but it seems what their fanbase accepted from Mustafa due to the trust they had in him, they did not accept from the officials after him.

Unlike other parties, Gorran supporters were not tied to the movement for status, wealth, religion or an ideology, they were only following the movement in hopes of uprooting rampant corruption from the PUK and KDP as well as improving lives and governance in the Kurdistan Region, as the party promised. But they have lost that hope now and are eyeing changes within the movement to see whether hope will be restored or not.