Upstart Kurdish party has Iraq-wide ambitions
Shaswar Abdulwahid has a vision for a new kind of politics in Iraqi Kurdistan — and, indeed, for all of Iraq. Abdulwahid is president of the New Generation Movement (NGM), a Kurdish political party in Erbil that won eight seats in the 111-seat parliament of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and four seats in the 329-seat national parliament in Baghdad.
Those numbers make the NGM a marginal party but given that it was established only ten months ago, its showing at the polls was not too bad. More important, the party has a distinct mission and platform.
Abdulwahid visited Washington to meet with US State Department officials and for a talk at the Middle East Institute. The 40-year-old politician said the “old guard” has ruled Iraq for too long and new voices need to be heard.
He added, however, that the NGM speaks “not just for youth but for people who never had a chance” and not just for Kurds but “for all of Iraq.”
The NGM’s position on the crisis over Kirkuk reflects its vision: “The issue of Kirkuk is bigger for the politicians in Baghdad and Erbil than it is for the people of Kirkuk,” Abdulwahid said. The NGM advocates for a local government “focused on serving the people” and not tied to the larger parties.
The NGM, Abdulwahid said, has no plans to join a governing coalition. “There should be an opposition in parliament,” he said, although he said he is not opposed to joining forces with other small parties with shared objectives.
Abdulwahid noted that in the recent KRG elections, less than 40% of the population voted. Of that number, 40% voted for parties other than the dominant duo: the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The result is that, although those two parties dominate the KRG’s parliament and government, they were supported by only about 25% of eligible voters. “The majority of Kurds do not support [the PUK and KDP],” Abdulwahid said.
The NGM’s platform is based on classic liberal democratic and economic principles: an independent and strong judiciary (“the only way to fight corruption,” Abdulwahid said); support for the private sector and especially small businesses; and policies that attract foreign investment. The NGM also is strongly in favour of women’s rights. Women must have “economic independence,” Abdulwahid said. “Without economic independence, there is no independence as an individual.” The NGM supports improved education for women and assistance to women-owned businesses.
Abdulwahid led the “No for Now” campaign in 2017 that advocated against the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. This, along with his party’s overall political approach, suggests that Abdulwahid and the NGM have ambitions to play a role on the larger Iraqi stage and not just within the KRG. He said his goal for the party in the 2022 elections was “44 seats in Baghdad and 88 in Erbil.”
In addition to his political activism, Abdulwahid is the founder of Nalia Media Corporation, an independent media company that operates Kurdnews and several other broadcast outlets, which Abdulwahid said were “a forum for all voices.” Nalia has a bureau in Washington as well as in Baghdad and several European capitals.
Abdulwahid confided that media freedom remains a challenge in both Kurdistan and Iraq in general. “I was the target of an assassination attempt,” he said and his TV station was the target of an arson attack soon after opening in 2011. Independent media “has little impact” in the KRG, he said, because the two parties “control everything.”
The situation, however, “is not hopeless,” Abdulwahid said, and he is trying to build international support. “Without free media in Iraq, you will not have stability in Iraq,” he said.