Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

The Divided Kurdish Front in Baghdad Deepens Internal Tensions

Divided Kurdish Front
Iraqi Kurds show their ink-stained fingers after casting their vote at a polling station in Iraq’s northern city of Dohuk in the autonomous Kurdish region during early parliamentary elections, on October 10, 2021. Ismael ADNAN / AFP

Ali Kurdistani

The outcomes of the October early elections have brought a new reality to Iraq: the Shi’as and Kurds have become more divided and Sunnis more united. After any Iraqi national elections, the Kurdish leadership and parties call to create a united front and policy for talks with other Iraqi political blocs and participate in the Iraqi government. However, such efforts did not last more than one joint visit to Baghdad this time. Nowadays, the Kurds are more divided in Baghdad than ever. As a result, this will negatively impact the Kurdish position in Baghdad for the next four years. It will also cause more tensions inside the Kurdistan Regional Government “KRG”.

Jeopardizing the Kurdish Unity

After the failure of creating a Kurdish united front, the Kurdish Democratic Party “KDP” and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan “PUK” tensions have started to grow. In the first parliamentary session held on January 9, the PUK boycotted the session and did not vote for the KDP candidate as a second deputy parliament speaker. After that, both parties presented their candidates for Iraq’s new president. Hoshyar Zebari is the KDP candidate, while Barham Salih is the PUK candidate for the second term. Consequently, the KDP and the PUK started counterarguments and blamed each other for this disunity in Baghdad.

On the one hand, the PUK blames the KDP for taking unilateral steps out of the Kurdish unity and insisting that the presidency is their share and not going to give up the post to others. In a statement published after the official endorsement of current Iraq President Barham Saleh for the second term on January 23, the PUK indicated that “the KDP has taken steps unilaterally and without respect to the will of Kurdish parties and Kurdish unity, and because they presented a candidate out of the consensus principle, it is our right to defend and not compromise.’’

Since 2005, the PUK has held the presidency. The KDP came with a candidate only in 2018. That candidate was Fuad Hussein, the current Iraqi foreign minister. However, Hussein lost to Barham Salih in these elections.

Nowadays, the KDP does not see the Iraqi president position as the PUK share. While the KDP considers the PUK’s candidate as ideologically unsuitable, it holds the PUK responsible for the consequences of their decision. In response to the PUK’s statement, Mahmoud Mohammed, the KDP spokesperson, said: ‘’Regarding the issue of the President of the Republic of Iraq, we reiterate that the post is the merit of the Kurdistani people and is not the property of a particular party or an individual.’’

“According to that principle, any Iraq president should only be a Kurdish candidate. He should also get the approval and support of all Kurdistani parties. However, the PUK continued insisting on nominating a Kurdish candidate, which is outside the approval of other Kurdistani political parties for the post of president. They view it as a party entitlement rather than a national unified candidate.”

Divided Kurdish Front
Iraqi President Barham Saleh attends a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, on January 22, 2020. Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

‘’The PUK should have acted more carefully on the issue of the president and the unity of Kurdistan, and should take responsibility for the current and subsequent situation’’. the KDP spokesperson added.

In the beginning, it looked like the KDP would only have an issue with the candidacy of Barham Salih. Should the PUK present a different candidate, the KDP will accept him. However, this time the KDP is more serious about getting the position in Baghdad. In other words, the party wants to strengthen its power and look for more significant achievements there.

Professor Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, the founding president of leading Erbil-based think-tank in Iraq Middle East Research Institute (MERI), told Fanack that now the situation is different than 2018. Due to the referendum of 2017, the KDP did not have good relations with the Iraqi parties at that time. However, the party currently has good relations with these parties. Ala’Aldeen adds: ‘’The issue is more complicated than discussing the candidacy of Barham Salih. The KDP decided to go back to Baghdad and become an influential partner and a decision-maker in Baghdad.” According to Ala’Aldeen, the KDP wants to be more effective in the Iraq parliament. The party wants to hold crucial positions there.

Ala’Aldeen believes that this is a historic opportunity for the KDP. In the past, the KDP could not have such power without PUK. However, the KDP benefited from the PUK weakness originated due to the internal dynamics of this party. The KDP does not feel its responsibility to revive the PUK. He adds: “The KDP believes it owns the Kurdish discourse and decisions in the Kurdistan region. The party is indeed taking an adventure. However, this move is taken to gain bigger achievements.’’

Despite the split between the KDP and the PUK in Baghdad, the other Kurdish parties such as the New Generation Movement, the Islamic Union and Kurdistan Justice Group have not sided with either party over their candidates for the presidency. It is not clear if these movements would support one of the candidates. These Kurdish parties have earlier decided to join the opposition in the Iraqi parliament instead of joining the new cabinet. The New Generation Movement presented a candidate for the presidency. However, the movement still has to decide about either running or withdrawing their candidacy.

In December 2021, the New Generation created with the Emtidad movement and other independent MPs a coalition called “For the Sake of People”. Led by the New Generation president Shaswar Abdul-Wahid, this newly-formed coalition comprises 28 MPs.

The Iraqi parliament set February 7 as the deadline for the parliamentary session to elect a new president. However, the parliament session to elect the president could be postponed or cancelled. On February 5th, the Sadrist bloc announced boycotting the parliament session and halting all talks with other parties on the formation of next government. The Sadrist bloc decision comes after its leader Muqtada al-Sadr’s tweet on the 4th “If the candidate of our ally the KDP and other candidates do not meet all the requirements, I call on the MPs of the Reform ‘bloc’ not to vote for him’’, Sadr tweeted.

Hoshyar Zebari
Hoshyar Zebari, the KDP’s candidate for the Iraqi presidency post and the former foreign minister of Iraq, speaks during an interview with AFP in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on September 7, 2017. SAFIN HAMED / AFP

Although Zebari’s nomination was approved by the new Iraqi parliament, the Iraqi federal court decided today to suspend Hoshyar Zebari’s candidacy temporarily until making a final decision on the case. According to the court’s statement, Zebari did not meet the requirements of ‘’good reputation and integrity’’. The court’s decision was in response to the constitutional appeal submitted earlier this month by 4 MPs (an independent MP and three MPs from the PUK). Therefore, if Zebari loses the chance to run for the presidency, the relations between the KDP and the PUK relations will be negatively impacted, given that the KDP insists on Zebari as their sole candidate for the presidency.

When Zebari was the Minister of Finance in 2016, he was impeached and sacked by the Iraqi parliament over corruption allegations.

For the first parliament session to elect a new president, two thirds of the MPs need to be present (i.e., 220 MPs). According to the constitution, the deadline to elect a new president is February 8. If the parliament fails to elect a new president by the deadline, a couple of constitutional interpretations might be followed. Some say that the current president will continue holding his position until the parties reach an agreement. Others believe that this will lead to a constitutional vacuum and parliament need by then to open the door to nominate new candidates.

Meanwhile, there are other registered Kurdish candidates for the presidential candidacy. The New Generation Movement nominated their elected MP Rebwar Abdulrahman for the candidacy. The list of other candidates includes Dr. Latif Rashid who is a former PUK minister in Baghdad and the husband of the PUK politburo member Shanaz Ibrahim Ahmed (the sister-in-law of the late PUK leader Jalal Talabani). However, Rashid does not have much chance since he did not get the PUK endorsement to bid for presidency.

Impacts on the KRG’s stability

Iraqi riot police keep position as they try to disperse a protest by university students demanding the payment by the government of monthly allowances, which has stopped since 2014, on November 23, 2021, near Sulaimaniyah university in eastern Kurdistan. (Photo by Shwan MOHAMMED / AFP)

Since 2005, the political stability and unification of two governments in the KRG depended on the strategic agreement between the two main Kurdish parties to divide the influential positions in Baghdad and Erbil. Based on that, the new developments will affect the KRG’s political and administrative stability.

According to Kawa Hassan, the Executive Director of Stimson Europe, the tensions between the KDP and the PUK over the presidency are likely to negatively impact the Kurdistan region and the relations between the two parties. In an interview with Fanack, Hassan said: “No one could talk about a Kurdish unity except when the KDP and the PUK were able to agree on the money and positions. However, that kind of agreement might be good to make the balance and prevent bloodshed in Kurdistan.’’

In the past decade, the PUK internal rifts and struggle weakened the party’s position within the KRG. Therefore, the PUK must have an influential role in Baghdad to balance stakes with the KDP in Kurdistan. Having that role becomes more crucial if the new Kurdish parliamentary elections in the KRG will be postponed later this year (either in September or November). If both parties do not agree over positions by then, the KRG political stability would be at stake.

Professor Ala’Aldeen believes that the KDP “is not much concerned about the consequences of this power balance on the Kurdistan region.” On the other hand, the PUK has to be more concerned, as Ala’Aldeen thinks. According to him, the split over positions in Baghdad will not lead to ‘’the collapse of the government in Erbil as both parties agree to keep this cabinet until the upcoming KRG elections.’’ However, it will ‘’slow down the KRG unification which needs to include the financial and some executive powers.’’

Both parties have conflicting interests in Baghdad. They are currently working to obtain support for their candidates against each other. However, based on the available choices and previous experience, both parties are likely to reach a deal, especially after the formation of the new government in Baghdad. ‘’If the KDP wins the presidency, the PUK will, in the end, accept the new reality,” Kawa Hassan says, “Otherwise, the PUK will either have to fight the KDP, join the opposition or stay as a junior partner.” Hassan believes that the PUK is likely not to withdraw from the political process, given that doing so would mean giving up many privileges. The PUK may reach a deal with the KDP, either by getting the post of the governor of Kirkuk or obtaining other positions in the KRG or Baghdad.

Even though the KDP seems to be in a better position to win the presidency this time, there are no guarantees. Anything may change at the last minute. In other words, the PUK might win the position. Nevertheless, if KDP wins the presidency, this will end the balance of power between the two parties. Consequently, the PUK might be obliged to put pressure on the KDP in the Kurdistan region. Although the KDP has a stronger position in the KRG by holding influential posts in the KRG, the PUK still has complete power over security, intelligence, Peshmerga and money in Suleimaniyah, Halabja, Garmyan and the Raparain areas, which are known as a green zone. Therefore, in the case of losing its presidency, the PUK will seek key positions within the KRG, especially the president of the Kurdistan region or the Prime Minister.

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