Monday,18 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1405, ( 9 - 15 August 2018)
Monday,18 February, 2019
Issue 1405, ( 9 - 15 August 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Iraq’s Kurds in post-election jumble

Iraqi Kurdish leaders have been avoiding talk of independence as they unveil plans to join Iraq’s next government, writes Salah Nasrawi


Barzani and McGurk in Erbil last month
Barzani and McGurk in Erbil last month

Soon after an independence referendum he had championed backfired and triggered a regional crisis in September, Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani stepped down as president of the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.

Nevertheless, Barzani, whose Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has campaigned for Kurdish self-determination for nearly seven decades, vowed he would continue to lead the Kurds’ long-term drive for their lofty goal of independence from Iraq.

Since his resignation in October, Kurdistan’s maverick has been relegated temporarily to political oblivion. His nephew and Prime Minister of the KRG Nechervan Barzani has been running the enclave’s day-to-day affairs.

No one, however, had expected that the dominant Kurdish political figure would fade away and stop pursuing his central goals: the maintenance of domestic power and the dominant KDP influence in the region.

Indeed, Barzani has been giving little indication that he will go away to his mountainous “retirement abode” in the Salaheddin resort and let others rewrite the political rulebook of the region.

Last week, he made a strong comeback to the political stage and showed that he still loomed large over the region’s politics and whenever efforts were needed to put Kurdistan’s house in order. 

In a keynote intervention, Barzani set down three preconditions for the Kurds to join Iraq’s next government and for what he called “rebuilding the political process” in partnership, consensus and balance.

Barzani also told US Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk, believed to be Washington’s interlocutor in efforts to form the next Iraqi government, that “a specific timeline should be drawn up for the implementation of the three principles.”

Barzani did not give further details about the Kurdish terms, but KRG officials who have been holding talk with the main Shia blocs in Iraq on the new government have signalled certain tough preconditions.

Iraq has been without an elected government since an inconclusive and unenthusiastic vote on 12 May. Five Shia lists won the most seats in the 329-seat parliament, which allows them to forge the largest coalition to head a new government.

Several Kurdish parties won 57 seats, and lists representing the country’s Sunnis won some 47 seats, while the rest went to the representatives of minorities or independent candidates.

Since the Shia lists were the ones that received the largest chunk of the vote, they are expected to form a new government, although traditionally the ruling bloc in parliament tends to be larger in order to include Sunni Arab and Kurdish MPs.

Like in the past three parliamentary elections in Iraq, the country’s political leaders began holding consultations after the vote as part of the lengthy and often complicated process of forming a coalition government.

Among the many demands that KRG representatives have reportedly made to join the prospective government is an agreed mechanism to share senior posts.

In the past, the Kurds insisted on being key players in the government by having key posts such as those of president of the republic, deputy prime minister, and important ministries such as the foreign affairs and finance portfolios.

Under the post-2003 Iraqi administrations, officials of the main Kurdish parties have also held key posts such as deputy speaker of the parliament, army chief-of-staff, and head of the Independent Elections Commissions.

Kurdish officials who seek to get over the humiliation of the independence referendum’s failure have made little secret of what they really want from the Shia ruling class in exchange for joining the next government in Baghdad.

To show their people that they are recovering from the humiliation, they have put at the top of their demands the return of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk and other territories they lost to the Iraqi security forces last year from under the KRG’s control.

They also want the return of the Kurdish Peshmergas forces and the Kurdish administration, a symbol of strength and political power to control these areas which they want to make their spheres of influence.

However, while it is trying to shore up the KRG’s standing in the negotiations to form a new government in Baghdad, the Kurdistan leadership remains restrained by certain limits and obstacles.

Barzani’s decision to hold a 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, the vote triggered a catastrophic reversal of fortunes for Iraq’s Kurds.

In addition to the painful national humiliation and the loss of oil-rich territories, the Iraqi Kurds came out in the wake of the referendum sharply divided, with a long road ahead of them to recover from the bruised politics caused by the failure of the vote.

The referendum did not only divide the Kurdish movement, but it also electrified the region of some five million people. One of the major consequences of the failure of the referendum on the political front was the modest performance of Kurdistan’s parties in the country’s 12 May elections.

In Iraq’s last elections in 2014, the Kurdish parties won 62 out of parliament’s 329 seats, including Kirkuk, Nineveh, Diyala and Baghdad. Despite an increase in the size of the Kurdish electorate, they lost a significant number of seats in 2018 due to their shrunken territories.

In yet another setback for the Kurdish influence in Baghdad, a bitter feud between the political parties in Kurdistan has been reflecting negatively on their ability to forge a united Kurdish front that could provide a leadership and an agenda for negotiating with Baghdad.

At least five smaller Kurdish parties have voiced reservations about the way Barzani’s KDP and his allies in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have been monopolising the Kurdish negotiations with Baghdad over the formation of the next Iraqi government. 

Unlike in previous elections since 2003, the Kurdish parties will find it difficult to unanimously agree on a set of candidates for posts in the next government, in particular for the post of president of the republic which has been occupied by a PUK senior member since 2005.

The Islamic Union of Kurdistan has already nominated one of its leaders for the job, while a small faction within the PUK has said it wants the party’s leadership to endorse its nominee for president, a request which was immediately rejected by the party’s political bureau.

In a broader perspective, the question now is about the exact role the Kurdish leadership contemplates playing in forming Iraq’s next government and supporting the larger goal of rebuilding the Iraqi state.

Over the past 15 years, the Kurdish leadership, after securing its quota in the government and sharing in the country’s national resources, has pushed to create an opportunistic system of oligarchy in Baghdad, playing Shia and Sunni factions off against each other while letting the country slip into anarchy.

Contrary to the myth of becoming kingmakers in post-2003 Iraq’s political equation, the objective of the Kurdish leadership has been to create an environment of factionalism and division that would make communal livelihoods impossible and therefore be conducive to the break-up of the country.

That strategy of gradually eroding Iraq’s social fabric and its territorial integrity to pave the way for secession was behind the decision to go for the referendum last year. It only backfired when the Kurdish leadership’s agenda was met by strong resistance from other Iraqis and the regional and international powers.

The absence of a language of separatism from current Kurdish discourse does not necessarily reflect a new school of thought in Kurdish nationalism but could instead be a tactical move to see the ramifications of the elections and the formation of the new government first.      

For now, it remains unclear whether the Kurdish leadership will choose to engage in good faith in Iraq’s national politics and efforts to rebuild the war-battered country, or whether it will go back to its old strategy of letting Iraq slip into chaos and potential break-up.

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