What is Yousef Mohammed’s Swedish Visit For?

The Speaker of Kurdistan’s parliament, Yousef Mohammed, has followed up his visit to the UK in February with a visit to the Swedish parliament, in an effort to build support for Kurdistan. The question now is exactly what this visit means for Kurdistan, and whether it is, in fact, aimed more at shoring up Yousef Mohammed’s political position than at building real benefits for the region.

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As with his UK visit, the trip was not an official one, although it seems clear that the intent was to portray it as one. He was not met by current members of the Swedish parliament, but rather by retired ones, and there was no sense of him speaking on behalf of Kurdistan, in spite of a claim to represent the elected will of the Kurdish people. It is a difficult assertion, given that his position is an appointed one, that he has never been directly elected by the Kurdish people, and that he has not been in a position to fulfil his duties within the Kurdish parliament in some time.

While in Sweden, Yousef Mohammed spoke of getting support for Kurdistan and “bringing democracy to it”. Perhaps this says something about the aims of the visit, and about Yousef Mohammed’s European excursions more generally. The fact is that, under normal circumstances, Kurdistan is a democracy, and is certainly a far cry from the dictatorship that the Speaker’s comments seem to imply. Its political processes have been disrupted by the current military situation (it is hard to hold elections when there is a fight to hold the territory where those elections might take place) but it is a long way from there to ceasing to be a democracy.

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Kurdistan prides itself on its commitment to the democratic process, to its constitution, to the role of women in its society, and to building the ability of everyone within society to have a voice. Yousef Mohammed must know this as well as anyone, even if there have been serious political difficulties in the last few months, prompted by civil unrest in the wake of Kurdistan’s financial difficulties. His party is the second largest in Kurdistan’s parliament, thanks to the very democratic process he seems to be claiming is absent. The question must, therefore, be one of what he hopes to gain by portraying Kurdistan as the kind of place to which democracy must be brought.

The simple answer seems to be that he is seeking assistance, not for Kurdistan as a whole, but for his party, seeking to improve its political position by portraying all alternatives as undemocratic and unelected. One of Kurdistan’s greatest strengths is its ability to connect with a range of international partners, and by claiming to try to bring democracy to Kurdistan, Yousef Mohammed may be able to affect that connection. By portraying himself as the ‘democratic’ option to international partners such as Sweden, he may be able to place himself as a middleman in future agreements. This, in turn, would allow him to portray himself as the one bringing benefits to the people of Kurdistan domestically.

It may also be a move aimed at damaging the political position of Kurdistan’s largest party. Certainly, claims to be trying to bring democracy to Kurdistan seem to be an implicit attack on the government of Kurdistan’s probity, at a time when the exigencies brought about by war probably do mean that there are examples for him to draw upon. His party’s message of change only makes sense as an attack on existing ways of doing politics. Perhaps he is hoping that it is something that will resonate with European political movements aimed at transforming their own countries, and that no one will look too closely at the details of what he is trying to achieve.

At the very least, the trip is designed as a move to build his personal standing as a preparation for future political moves. He may well feel that part of his party’s difficulties in attracting support lies in his lack of an international profile. Certainly, his current European tour seems aimed as much at being able to say ‘I met with people in European parliaments to discuss Kurdistan’s problems’ as at actually providing solutions.

Because it is important to remember what has not come out of Yousef Mohammed’s Swedish trip as much as what has. There have been no increases in aid as a result of it. There have been no agreements, because Yousef Mohammed is not in a position to make such agreements. There has been nothing but an opportunity for him to suggest his importance both domestically and abroad, playing the part of the international statesman while Kurdistan has real difficulties to overcome. It seems exactly like the kind of politics his party spends its time pledging to overcome, with nothing at its heart but his future political success.

By Camilla K Söderqvist

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