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On 10 June 2019, Nechirvan Barzani was sworn in as president of Kurdistan Region. He follows in the footsteps of his uncle Masoud Barzani, who held the post between 2005 and 2017.
The inauguration ceremony was attended by Barham Salih, Iraq’s president and the Barzani family’s main rival. He is, after all, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The understanding between the PUK and the Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is that the PUK can propose a candidate for Iraq’s presidency while the KDP can put forward a candidate for Kurdistan.
Last year, however, the KDP refused to endorse Salih for the job and nominated its own candidate, causing tension between the parties. The fact that Salih won the bid caused jokes with a serious undertone: would he even be allowed to land his presidential plane in the regional capital Erbil, where the KDP rules? Salih did not try and maybe he did not need to. But now that Nechirvan Barzani is in charge, he is apparently welcome.
Yet this version of the narrative may give Nechirvan too much credit. Although he is the new president, he is not the one in charge. It is his uncle who still pulls the strings, as Nechirvan himself admitted in an interview with al-Monitor. Asked whether it is safe to say that Masoud is the real boss, he said, “Of course! He is the one person who cannot be removed from the scene!”
Family relations are the most important consideration here. Nechirvan was born in 1966 in Barzan, a town in the mountains between Erbil and the Turkish border. His father is Idris Barzani, Masoud’s older brother. Nechirvan was eight years old when, in 1975, the Barzani family was forced into exile in Iran. When his grandfather Mullah Mustafa Barzani, one of the founders of the KDP, died in 1979, part of the family returned to Iraq. Nechirvan continued his education in Iran where he studied political science. He did not graduate: in his third year, his father died unexpectedly of a heart attack. For Nechirvan, this was the moment to return to Kurdistan and dedicate himself to Kurdish politics.
Masoud had by then taken over the leadership of the KDP from his father. Idris played an important role as well, often handling the party’s international contacts and taking his son with him on foreign trips to prepare him for his political career. Since Idris’ death, Masoud has been the head of the Barzani family and by extension the KDP.
“His father’s death opened a space for Nechirvan to get involved in Kurdish politics. He became a member of the KDP Political Bureau when he was only 23 years old,” said Kamal Chomani, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Hamburg, Germany. A critic of the Barzanis’ nepotism, Chomani added, “This would be impossible if one were not from the Barzani family.”
Ten years later, in 1999, Nechirvan became the prime minister of Kurdistan. The region had not been officially established yet and had in fact become split into a northern area controlled by the KDP and a southern area controlled by the PUK. It was only after peace was instituted in the early 2000s that the parties agreed to share power and the PUK became part of the government in Erbil. After the establishment of the Kurdish constitution, Nechirvan became the prime minister of the first ‘united’ Kurdistan. After the 2009 elections, his post went to Salih, only to return to him after 2012. He remained prime minister until his election as president on 28 May 2019, beating out four other candidates, all of whom received zero votes.
Journalist Amberin Zaman first met Barzani in 1992, when he was manning a checkpoint as a peshmerga. She described him as ‘extremely witty’, adding, ‘He loves to joke and is very approachable. He and his wife are well loved for being just that, approachable.’
She further characterized him as extremely pragmatic and a consensus builder. ‘Of course you could critique him for everything one criticizes the overall conduct of politics in Kurdistan for: nepotism, elitism and a lack of transparency. And a serious effort at rooting out institutionalized corruption has yet to be displayed. But Western diplomats have always described Nechirvan as a problem solver. He listens and tries to fix things. I know for a fact that he financed the rescue of numerous Yazidi girls while [Islamic State] was still fairly strong. He is a positive thinker.’
He is sometimes also described as softer than the other Barzani who currently holds considerable power: Masrour, one of Masoud’s sons, who has been in charge of the intelligence services and will take over the role of prime minister.
Chomani finds this description naive. “The KDP is a very centralist right-wing, conservative, patriarchal political party, and all the decisions are made by the Barzani family. Therefore, calling Nechirvan Barzani a dovish politician in comparison to Masrour is very naive. Nechirvan Barzani has been more diplomatic, as his position as the prime minister required him to be, but otherwise he shares the same world view as Masrour and Masoud.”
As prime minister, Nechirvan had “no vision other than further consolidating power, building his economic empire and establishing a semi-monarchy like the Gulf countries”, Chomani said. “He did not have a clear democratic world view, or even a governance philosophy, other than his tribal world view.”
The KDP’s Foreign Relations Office tweeted on 28 May that parliament had elected Nechirvan in ‘a remarkable process of a peaceful transfer of power’. It did not mention that only 81 of 111 lawmakers were present for the vote because of a boycott by the PUK and the smaller New Generation party. In practice, there is no transfer of power, just a reassignment of positions among the Barzanis. With Nechirvan as president and Masrour as prime minister, the Barzani family remains firmly in charge of the KDP and the regional government.