Will the Change Movement rise again?

20-02-2023 03:01
Osmani Haji Mahmood, One of the most prominent dissident leaders of Gorran, Omer Said Ali, the current General Coordinator of Gorran, and Nawshirwan Mustafa, the late founder and General Coordinator of Gorran Movement, September 2013, Photo: Surkew Mohammed - Peregraf.

Peregraf- Surkew Mohammed

In the summer of 2017, an official from the Change Movement (Gorran) was taking a taxi to the party’s headquarters on Zargata Hill in Sulaimaniyah city. It was just a few weeks after the Movement’s founder, Nawshirwan Mustafa, had died and a major topic of conversation in the media was whether ownership of the property had been transferred to his sons, Nma and Chia or not.

"Is it true that Gorran Hill has been transferred to Kak Nawshirwan's sons?" the taxi driver asked the party official, who has since left the party and told the anecdote to Peregraf.

The Gorran cadre did not give a clear answer, instead talking about how Mustafa’s sons were different from the sons of officials in other parties.

The driver drew on a cigarette and said, "Look Kaka, is the property under their names or not?" The official conceded that the transfer had taken place.

"Well, there it is," the taxi driver replied.

The former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to relate ongoing discussions about Gorran’s future, said this story is indicative of how public attitudes regarding the party have shifted since Mustafa’s death and contributed to its complete collapse in the 2021 federal elections.

In that disastrous result, the Movement lost all five of its seats and polled just 18,358 votes across seven candidates in Erbil, Sulaimaniyah, and Kirkuk governorates. When the initial results came out, Gorran acknowledged its defeat, apologized to the public, and promised to make radical changes.

Within 72 hours, most of the party’s senior leadership, including General Coordinator Omer Said Ali, announced their resignations, but they continue in their posts because the Movement has not yet replaced them.

Former Gorran officials and dissidents who remain within the party, believe that the most obvious causes of the Movement’s problems are based in its strategy. Since Mustafa’s death, questions linger over how the party is administered, its cooperation with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the choice to join the current Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Council of Ministers, and the transfer of party assets to Mustafa’s sons, including the Zargata Hill headquarters and shares in a cement company.

A message of resurrection clashes with the stance of the dissidents

Gorran’s leadership believes that the next regional election is a chance for the Movement to reconstitute itself and bring back disgruntled former cadres who have not yet joined other parties. As part of that effort, it issued a call on February 8 for them to return to the fold.

"Together, we should start with scientific and objective self-reflection. Starting with the same spirit of the past, and with every step and decision needed for that purpose, we have to take responsibility together for the future outcomes of the Movement and regain the trust of our voters and the people of Kurdistan," the party said in the message.

Additionally, the leadership has held a number of private meetings with dissidents and former officials, but the conversations have not resulted in any reconciliation so far.

A current senior Gorran official also talked to Peregraf on condition of anonymity, saying that "Omer Said Ali and Mustafa Said Qadir have met with the dissidents several times and asked them to return and work together, especially Osman Haji Mahmood, but there is still no clear horizon for their return."

Haji Mahmud is a former member of the Gorran executive who resigned in mid-2018 over concerns about the party’s direction.

"At the last meeting between Kak Osman and Omer Said Ali, Kak Osman asked Gorran to take some stances, including withdrawing from the government and apologizing for extending the term of the Kurdistan Parliament," a person close to Haji Mahmud confirmed to Peregraf.

Regarding withdrawal from the government, Said Ali’s response was to say that Gorran receives $250,000 per month from the KRG, the source said. This would be forfeited if they left government, leaving the Movement without any financial resources.

The Gorran official told Peregraf that the party has told disgruntled former members that all options are on the table, including withdrawing from the government, provided that the dissidents first return to the party so that issues of strategy can be decided collectively. However, the returnees would have to "stand by to the outcome of the decisions and everyone would have to own the decisions, rather than standing outside of them."

Many of Gorran’s former officials and members of parliament have not joined other parties or formed a new group. However, sources told Peregraf that Haji Mahmud is trying to gather the dissidents together into closer coordination, much to the distress of the Movement’s current leadership. In late November, he made the first step towards a new political project by launching a new website called Trust Net, but the effort did not go as planned and it stopped publication.

"The dissidents cannot create other parties outside Gorran," the party official said. "The best option is to return and continue to work within Gorran in a new form. The Movement needs them now and to unite all of its capabilities."

In conversations with Peregraf, several Gorran dissidents said that they believe that party should be financially independent and that the property once owned by Mustafa should be left for the benefit of the party and the public. Moreover, there should be a strategic review of the party’s relations with the KDP and the PUK.

The letter of Nawshirwan Mustafa's sons

Ten days before Gorran sent its February message to the dissidents, Mustafa’s sons, who have no official position within the party, expressed their views and demands in a letter to Gorran’s leadership.

The tone of the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Peregraf, was that of a threat not to give away too much. It called for an interim management team comprised of current party leaders, Gorran members serving in government posts, and those who have left the party.

"This group will have full decision-making authority over any issues related to our Movement's political and organizational life, including the question of political discourse, the fate of Gorran in the KRG, local governments, parliament, and the holding of a national conference," Nma and Chia Nawshirwan wrote.

However, the letter did not clearly address the critical issue of ownership of Zargata Hill, which comprises of 122 acres in the central part of Sulaimaniyah.

"Once again we assure [the dissidents] that the only choice our father wanted was that Zargata Hill would be a home and citadel of change-seekers. A Gorran that remains on the side of the people will be a place for public service and defending the public good. We will also fulfill our father's dreams by establishing a cultural center to develop and serve future generations," they wrote.

The Gorran official, who is familiar with the sons’ thinking on the issue, told Peregraf that they do not believe that the issue is part of Gorran’s problems or a cause of why it had such a bad election. As a result, they are "not ready to discuss it as a serious question," the official said.

Those who are critical of the party disagree about its significance, arguing that the transfer of the property to Mustafa’s sons has symbolic meaning.

"Let Gorran come off of the hill and move its headquarters elsewhere", a disgruntled Gorran member told Peregraf. "Kak Nawshirwan's sons cannot own Gorran financially without any positions in Gorran and interfere in its work."

"Now, they are richer than Gorran and their monthly income is much higher than what Gorran receives from the [government]. It seems that whoever has the money and finances will have an impact on political decisions," they added.

The letter sent by Mustafa’s sons to the party was received poorly, the Gorran official conceded.

"Kak Nawshirwan's sons have no posts. They are not in Gorran. Although they have been offered posts many times, they are not ready to step in. So, they do not have the right to send letters to Gorran in that manner and style and to have those demands," the official added.

Gorran was established in 2008 as a challenge to the ruling duopoly of the KDP and the PUK and to offer a program of radical change to voters. But after winning 24 seats in the 2013 regional election, the party opted to join the government instead of remaining in opposition.

After Mustafa’s death, the party’s influence went into decline, particularly after it decided to join KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani’s government in 2019. It now occupies a place somewhere between government and opposition and lacks the trust of voters.

If it hopes to reverse this dynamic, it will have to convince voters who have left the party and become disillusioned with the electoral process.

However, this is a difficult task, say former Gorran members, with one telling Peregraf: "the dead might come alive again, but Gorran will never be the same again."