Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq Masrour Barzani has won a vote of confidence for his slate of ministers.
Barzani, sworn in as prime minister on 10 July, succeeded his cousin Nechirvan Barzani, who had previously served two terms as prime minister (March 2006 to August 2009 and March 2012 to May 2019) and who was sworn in as KRG president in June 2019.
The new prime minister’s cabinet has 21 ministers, of which three are ministers of state without portfolio. Two seats are reserved for representatives of Christians and Turkmen in the Kurdistan Region. Three women have been awarded ministerial posts, the highest number of women ministers to date in KRG cabinets.
The new cabinet is the fruit of ten months of painstaking negotiations between the three main parties in Iraqi Kurdistan: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Movement for Change (Gorran).
A series of separate bilateral agreements between the dominant party, the KDP and the two other parties resulted in a power-sharing arrangement covering the key authorities in the autonomous Regional Government with provisions for the inclusion of Turkmen and Christian parties in the cabinet (with a seat each) and in certain administrative posts.
The recent vote of confidence took place on the basis of a prearranged consensus between the three main parties, while three opposition parties, the New Generation Movement (NGM), the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG), boycotted the vote. Together, these hold around 20 seats in the 111-member parliament.
Sharp divisions both between and within the three main parties had obstructed the formation of a cabinet since the current parliament was elected in September 2018. The KDP, which won 45 seats in parliament, could not form a government on its own and therefore had to form a coalition government with the PUK, which won 21 seats in the election.
Gorran won 12 seats in 2018, down from 24 in the previous parliamentary elections in 2013. The plunge in the popularity of this once strong opposition party is a sign of the decline of populist politics as a whole in Iraqi Kurdistan.
The new government has made a broad array of pledges primarily related to the economy and standard of living, including debt reduction by encouraging foreign investment, economic diversification through investments in agriculture, industry and tourism in order to generate job opportunities for youth, facilitating commerce with trading partners outside the region, and raising living standards that had deteriorated due to the long war against the Islamic State (IS) group and the Iraqi federal government’s suspension of the KRG’s share of the annual budget after 2014.
Among the new government’s other aims are to digitise government services, reduce red tape and streamline bureaucracy and promote transparency and fight corruption.
At the level of the KRG’s relationship with the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad, the new government is committed to “strengthening the principles of constructive partnership.” In this framework, the integration of Kurdish Peshmergas fighters into the Iraqi national defence system, the question of the territories designated as “disputed” in accordance with the roadmap laid out in Article 40 of the Iraqi Constitution, the distribution of oil and gas revenues in accordance with articles 111 and 112, and closer military and security cooperation are high on the new government’s agenda.
KRG President Nechirvan Barzani and Prime Minister Masrour Barzani understand that the only way for the new government to achieve its domestic agenda is to forge a good working relationship with the federal government in Baghdad.
In a press conference with the local and international media, Nechirvan Barzani affirmed the KRG’s commitment to the democratically adopted Iraqi Constitution, which upholds peaceful coexistence among the Iraqi factions.
Only through a commitment to the Constitution would it be possible to resolve the questions of Kirkuk, Khanaqin, Sinjar and other disputed areas in northern Iraq, as well as the oil and gas laws, the distribution of resources and power-sharing, he said.
Since May, former KRG president Masoud Barzani and the current president and prime minister have pursued a series of meetings and visits at home and abroad in order to overcome the repercussions of the independence referendum that was held in 2017 and to mend fences with Baghdad.
Former president Masoud Barzani met with UN Special Representative to Iraq Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert on 13 May, for example, and with the British consul-general in Baghdad on 26 June. Current President Nechirvan Barzani met with Iraqi President Barham Saleh on 29 June to promote coordination between Irbil and Baghdad on matters related to the disputed areas.
He also met with the members of the UN Security Council, the Vatican foreign minister, the US ambassador to Iraq, the US undersecretary of state for Iraq and Iran and the EU foreign policy commissioner. On 10 July, Nachirvan flew to Paris to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron.
On 16 July, Prime Minster Masrour Barzani visited Baghdad where he met with Iraqi President Saleh, Prime Minister Adel Abdel-Mahdi and Speaker of the Iraqi Parliament Mohamed Al-Halbousi. The visit was intended as a gesture of “good faith and a sincere desire to engage in dialogue and appropriate solutions” to the problems between Irbil and Baghdad, he said.
According to the KRG prime minister’s remarks afterwards, the two sides agreed that issues must be resolved in accordance with the Iraqi Constitution and that “technical dialogues” would begin soon in order to resolve such issues, especially those related to oil and the disputed territories.
In order to carry out its agenda, the Masrour government will have to contend with two main challenges. First, the politically charged selection process for the new government sidelined technocrats in favour of affiliates with the major rival parties. The partisan nature of the new cabinet could work to delay the implementation of the government’s agenda or force it off-course.
Second, all of Masrour’s previous positions were in the security sector, and he has never before held a ministerial position. Heading a multi-party government, especially one in which most cabinet members are serving as ministers for the first time, will be a new experience for him.
Another challenge looms in connection with the Iranian influence in Iraq and the Kurdistan Region in particular. Masrour has set his government “on the course to change,” and on 10 July he said it would usher in “a new era for Kurdistan.” This, however, may be affected by the rivalry between the KRG’s growing relationship with the US, with which it signed a number of trade agreements this month, and by Iranian influence in Kurdistan, where Iran has close relations with the prime minister’s cousins.
On top of this, there are the Iranian pressures on Baghdad that could work to obstruct the progress of the talks between Baghdad and Irbil that began on 16 July.
As part of its clampdown on Kurdish groups in northern Iran, Iran also launched military strikes against a number of villages in Iraqi Kurdistan in July. In short, the new KRG government may find itself caught between Washington’s desire for closer cooperation at all levels with Irbil and the Iranian determination to retain a military and economic presence in the region.
The new KRG government’s agenda reflects the electoral platforms of the three major parties that form the government. The fact that Masrour’s visit to Baghdad was one of the first items on the agenda of the first official meeting of the new cabinet bears testimony to this. The visit was a manifestation of the parties’ shared desire for Irbil to pursue more modest and more realistic political ambitions both inside Iraq and abroad.
This will mean taking steps to demonstrate a willingness to find practical solutions for disputes between Irbil and Baghdad on very sensitive and complex issues ranging from revenue sharing to security and border control. The newfound realism may go so far as a willingness to defer discussion on certain issues and to accept a solution to the “disputed areas” on the basis of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 July, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: New government in Iraqi Kurdistan