Elections make for strange bedfellows in Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdish region, and when they are over power struggles among the victors begin. This has been the case since the breakaway northern Iraqi enclave held its first ballot in 1994.
On 10 June, Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), was sworn in as the region’s newly elected president, succeeding his uncle Masoud Barzani who quit after the failure of an independence referendum in 2017.
Nechirvan Barzani was elected president by the region’s 111-member parliament on 28 May in a session boycotted by the second-largest party in Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and a few other smaller opposition groups.
He won 68 votes from the 81 members present. Members of the Gorran (Change) Movement as well as Turkmens and Assyrians joined Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to push through his nomination despite opposition by the PUK.
However, the proceedings have now paved the way for a divisive new contest in Iraqi Kurdistan, which was already marred by conflict, confusion and foreign involvement.
Without a lasting solution to the region’s governmental crisis, repeated conflicts will sabotage the fragile political process and may lead to a confrontation between the region’s two most powerful political groups.
The political instability and factional in-fighting that followed last September’s legislative elections will define the course to be taken by this region of some five million people who have become a major factor in the larger region’s stability.
While the KDP came first in the elections, winning 45 seats in the parliament and positioning it to lead the next government, Kurdistan’s future in large part depends on the commitment of the two main parties to power-sharing.
Iraqi Kurdistan has been autonomous since 1991, and its politics have been dominated by on-again off-again power-sharing between the KDP and the PUK. The two parties are not only political but also ideological rivals.
The 50/50 formula that splits power equally between the KDP and the PUK, including control over government and resources, has allowed the two parties to impose their heavy-handed rule over the region.
Since the region’s independence referendum in 2017, the KDP and the PUK have been mired in in-fighting and have blamed each other for responsibility for the aborted referendum.
Masoud Barzani’s decision to hold the referendum to break away from Iraq despite furious Iraqi and regional objections ended in abysmal failure and amounted to a humiliation of catastrophic proportions for Iraq’s Kurds.
Instead of paving the way to statehood or boosting the Kurds’ bargaining power in negotiations with the Iraqi government in Baghdad, the vote triggered a catastrophic reversal of fortunes for Iraq’s Kurds.
The referendum did not only divide the Kurdish movement, but it also electrified the region and cast doubts over its future. One of the major consequences of its failure was the loss of Kirkuk and other territories that the KRG had seized while Iraqi federal forces were busy fighting the Islamic State (IS) terror group in 2014.
The present governmental crisis started after the legislative elections, when the newly elected parliament failed to elect a speaker, the key to the assembly’s functioning and the formation of a new government for the region.
The KDP lawmakers and their allies then chose an interim speaker in February this year, deepening the rift between the two main political parties.
Months of hectic negotiations over power-sharing faltered after the two parties disagreed on the allocation of cabinet positions in the KRG and who should hold power in making key decisions in the region.
The PUK has sought guarantees that the KDP will not capitalise on its parliamentary majority to seek a monopoly of power in the region, and it has demanded a bigger share of both power and the region’s resources.
But in addition to nominating Nechirvan Barzani as the new KRG president, the KDP has selected Masrour Barzani, Masoud’s son and head of the region’s security forces, as the new prime minister.
With Masoud Barzani still head of the KDP and promoted to the position of a national figurehead and powerful members of the Barzani clan in positions of power in Erbil, the reshuffle has raised concerns about the Barzanis entrenching themselves further in the KRG’s traditional power structure.
Such an enormous concentration of power is expected to reignite competition with the family of former PUK leader Jalal Talabani, who died in 2017, which has also succeeded in building a political clan that enjoys strong leadership positions, especially in Suleimaniya and Kirkuk.
One of the other contentious issues that has complicated efforts to form a new government is the KDP’s and the PUK’s dispute over whom to back as the new governor of Kirkuk. Each party is seeking to nominate a favourable operative for the key post in this oil-rich province.
Kurds control 26 out of the 41 members of the Kirkuk Provincial Council, but the friction between the KDP and the PUK has prevented the council from convening in order to appoint a new governor for Kirkuk.
The two parties have been vying for control of Kirkuk’s oil, which is not just a sign of financial gain, but also indicates political power. With Kirkuk’s oil reserves totalling some 10 per cent of Iraq’s total, the struggle highlights the motivations behind the strategic efforts of the regional powerhouses in the Middle East.
Meanwhile, the tensions come as Iraqi Kurdistan becomes increasingly entangled in the regional board game, especially as a result of Turkey’s military involvement in northern Iraq and the US-Iranian showdown.
The KRG is currently caught between its powerful northern neighbour of Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that uses Iraq’s mountainous region as a base in its fight for self-rule in southeast Turkey.
Last week, the Turkish military launched “Operation Claw” against the PKK in the Kurdish region using artillery shells, air strikes, and the deployment of commandos in Iraq’s northern region. Turkey said the push aimed to eliminate the logistical assets of the PKK in the area, which has been used for sneaking into Turkey.
Turkish forces have maintained a presence in a string of bases inside Iraqi Kurdistan near the border for some two decades, and their presence has been a source of contention in the conflict-ridden region.
With tensions between Washington and Tehran on the rise, a potentially dangerous conflict in Iraq could also enmesh the two Kurdish parties, which have traditionally sought to weigh their options and balance relationships between Washington and Tehran.
There are increasing signs that Iran has been more active recently in seeking to expand its engagement and political, economic, and security influence in Kurdistan.
There are also other regional and international stakeholders that are believed to be exploiting the explosive crisis in Kurdistan to serve their own agendas in Iraq.
While the United States has been maintaining strong political and military ties with the region in order to defend its interests, including by applying pressure on Iran, Russia has joined the oil chess game by buying the strategic pipeline that links Kirkuk to Ceyhan, the Turkish terminal on the Mediterranean Sea.
Some of Iraq’s Arab neighbours are also eyeing the Kurdish region as a starting point to expand their influence in Iraq. Instability in Kurdistan presents challenges and opportunities for these neighbours.
Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have been building warm political, economic and cultural ties with the KRG, and these should make them potential actors in Iraq’s conflicts.
Maintaining stability should remain the main objective of Kurdistan’s main parties. If the present volatility leads to a breakdown in the system, the region could return to chaos and possibly to civil war.
On Monday, the PUK sent a delegation to Nechirvan Barzani’s inauguration ceremony, apparently in a gesture of goodwill as the two groups remain focused on attempts to form a new government.
Yet, it is unlikely that the move will be able to lump Kurdistan’s two main parties together.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s dysfunctional political system lies at the heart of the conflict. Unless there is a lasting deal on reforming the entire political system in the region to end the monopoly on power by the two main parties, prospects for a long-term solution for Kurdistan’s governmental crisis look remote.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Kurdistan’s instability