By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Every once in a while I see an article by someone from the West who is writing about the Kurdistan Regional Government, the autonomous region in Iraq and they complain that the region is run by “two political families” or “ruled by” two families. Anyone who has been to the region or covered its politics cannot escape the fact that its leading politicians are often connected to the KDP or PUK and that the names Barzani and Talabani are prominent among the two respective parties.
It’s understandable therefore to come away with a simplistic view that there is something problematic about “family” politics. “The guarantors of state security cannot be beholden to two political families,” a recent article notes.
But there is also a double-standard involved in this critique. It is a double-standard on multiple levels. First of all, the same Western policymakers and experts who critique “family” politics in the Kurdish region, don’t critique the same politics in Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait or Bahrain. The West’s closest ally in the region is Saudi Arabia, a monarchy. Yet we don’t see articles claiming that Saudi Arabia is somehow invalid as a state or not a strong state because it is ruled by one family. So if the Western powers don’t have a problem with one family rule in numerous countries, why pretend that it is a concern elsewhere?
Furthermore it is not just the monarchies of the Middle East that have “family” rule of the country. How about Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta? How about the Bhuttos and Sharifs in Pakistan? Nawaz Sharif’s brother is the chief minister of Punjab, his nephew is a member of the National Assembly. One daughter is married to the finance minister. Why is it the same people critical of family politics in Kurdistan often don’t seem to mind family politics, such as the Gandhi family, in India?
Let’s say the real issue Westerners have is that they scoff at the “east” and its “family politics.” But how are things going in the West. Well we have George Bush sr, and jr and brother who all held office. The Kennedys. The Clintons. The Trumps, now. But remember, the West is against nepotism and “family” politics. Is it. Who is the president of Canada? Oh. Trudeau, son of Trudeau. The critical voices who object to “family” politics often didn’t seem to mind it in Venezuela or in Cuba or other places either. How . do things work in Argentina? Remember how Nestor Kirchner “stepped aside” so his wife Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner could take power? Did anyone critique “family politics” in Argentina?
Yes, family politics has many problems. Ideally a society should encourage social mobility and numerous voices to enter government. Prominent families may have the best interests of their state at heart, especially when they are large families whose destinies are intwined with the state. They may also be heroic and staunch defenders of the country. British nobles surely represented that tradition up to a point. But they can also become stagnant regimes, such as the Mubaraks in Egypt. They can become entrenched, such as the Assads in Syria. They can become corrupt, handing out businesses to relatives. But they are also incredibly common, whether in Thailand or China or other places. If one wants to critique Kurdistan, one should ask whether the “family politics” critique is necessarily a fair or logical one. It certainly is not a reason that would hamper Kurdistan becoming a state, since most states in the world are run by degrees of family politics.