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Edition 30 Volume 7 - August 06, 2024

The Kurdistan elections

Elections could facilitate Turkish-Kurdish relations  - Henri J. Barkey
The elections could relieve Turkish anxieties regarding the KRG's influence over its own Kurds.

Change is coming, but it needs time  - Safa A. Hussein
Both lists say that asserting Kurdish claims to the land is a priority; this could worsen tensions with Baghdad.

A new architecture for politics in Kurdistan  - Hiwa Osman
The Change List sees itself in a win-win situation.

Ramifications for the Kurdistan Region and for Iraq  - Khaled Salih
The major difficulty facing the Kurdistan Region is the next federal election in January 2024.

Elections could facilitate Turkish-Kurdish relations
 Henri J. Barkey

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki traveled to Iraq's Kurdish region this past weekend to visit with the Kurdistan Regional Government president, Massoud Barzani. While the two leaders promised to work on the many serious problems that divide Baghdad from the KRG, including the demarcation of internal boundaries, specifically the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, and the oil law, the picture has become far more complicated by the recent KRG elections.

In the July 25 elections, a new opposition party, Gorran (Change), for the first time did very well, especially in Patriotic Union of Kurdistan territories (its leader Newshirwan Mustafa broke away from the PUK). While the combined list of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the PUK still won a majority of the seats with more than 57 percent of the vote, Gorran's success is a wake-up call for the traditional and entrenched power structure in Kurdistan. It is clear that unless the KRG leadership becomes more sensitive to the increasing frustrations of the population and begins to curtail its clientalistic approach to doing business in the north, Gorran is likely to do even better in the future.

The KRG is in a quandary of sorts. Given its challenges, especially vis-a-vis Baghdad, it needs to construct a unified front. Yet for internal democracy and the development of a healthy political future, the Kurdistani List remains an anachronistic construction. At some future point, "national" parties will have to emerge that are not regional or kin-based. Clearly, however, this is some time away although Gorran represents a first step.

Still Gorran has to prove itself; it cannot be an opposition party a la Republican Peoples' Party in Turkey whose only purpose is to oppose for the sake of opposing. Rather, Gorran has to become a constructive opposition party that supports the existing government when it adopts the right policies, especially on reform, and oppose it when it strays. Above all, it has to develop alternative ideas and policies.

Such a party is a blessing in disguise for the KRG. According to the pre-election agreement between the KDP and the PUK, the current Iraqi deputy prime minister and member of the PUK leadership, Barham Salih, was to assume the reins of power. If the deal is adhered to, Salih, who has a solid reputation both as a reformer and democrat, will find his hand strengthened by Gorran's presence in parliament. He will be able to introduce far deeper reforms than the establishment would like to see simply by pointing to Gorran's presence.

On the other hand, Gorran's success may force the KRG leadership to take a harder line against Baghdad. Maliki's trip to the north notwithstanding, the Kurds have been frustrated with Baghdad's reluctance to move on Kirkuk and hold a referendum as mandated by the constitution. With the upcoming January 2024 elections, Maliki has every incentive to harden his line on Kirkuk so as to solidify his nationalist image as a champion of Iraqi interests regardless of sectarian and ethnic divisions.

The elections in Kurdistan are likely to also change perceptions of the KRG in the region and beyond. They demonstrate that the Iraqi people, Kurds included, are increasingly at ease with the workings of democratic politics. Kurdistan, which had struggled under the control of the traditional parties, has shown that it is possible to rise up peacefully against ruling elites. Baghdad and Irbil influence each other; whereas the KRG was seen as being more democratic in the past, politics in Baghdad had become far more vibrant and confrontational of late.

The election results should facilitate Turkish-KRG relations. One of the common refrains repeated often by opponents of any rapprochement between the two, that the KRG was nothing more than the extension of the tribal and feudal Barzani and Talabani families, has suffered a blow. Elections validate the proposition that a vibrant domestic public opinion beyond the control of the two parties exists in the KRG. To the extent that the KRG in the future demonstrates that this democratic beginning is genuine, it will also relieve Turkish anxieties over the KRG's influence over its own Kurds.

Turkey is about to embark on a major overture toward its Kurds in an effort at domestic reconciliation. Critical to this effort is improving relations with the KRG; Irbil's help is necessary to demilitarize the Turkish-Kurdish insurgent group, the PKK, which has as many as half its forces residing in northern Iraq.

KRG-Turkish relations are also likely to improve if Salih becomes the next KRG prime minister. He has not only proven himself an able negotiator and doer, but he is a keen supporter of improved relations with Turkey. For him Turkey represents a strategic choice for the Kurds that links them with the western world both economically and politically.

Still, one ought not exaggerate the consequences of these elections; the KRG has still a long way to go in improving domestic politics and removing the vestiges of overt and intrusive political interference in everyday life. But it is a good start.- Published 6/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Henri J. Barkey is a non-resident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and professor of international relations at Lehigh University.

Change is coming, but it needs time
 Safa A. Hussein

When the Iraqi Governing Council was established in July 2024, the Kurds occupied five of its 25 seats. Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani of the two "big" parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, occupied two seats, Salah Addeen of the Kurdistan Islamic party occupied a third seat and the other two were held by independent Kurds. At that time, some Iraqis admired the political and security achievements of the Kurds in northern Iraq and viewed their system as a possible model of a democratic system that could be applied in Iraq.

Remarkably, however, the Kurdish members had unified positions on all the issues discussed and voted upon. This "harmony" could be explained in part by common fear and a history of oppression by central governments in Baghdad. Still, the hegemony exercised by the two big parties over the other Kurdish members was clear. When I asked one of my Kurdish friends whether there was a democracy in Kurdistan, he said, "Yes, the Middle East type of democracy".

Yet in the course of the past six years, many developments have occurred in Iraq that are changing the dynamics of the political process, including in Kurdistan. The improvement in security, political realignments among the Arab political parties and the surprising outcome of the Iraqi provincial elections are all factors that directly or indirectly affect the opinions and attitudes of Kurdish society. External events also have their effect: the American elections and the "need for change" slogan as well as, probably, the aftermath of the Iranian elections.

The outcome of recent regional presidential and parliamentary elections in the three northern Kurdish provinces (Kurdistan Region) on July 25 is indicative of these changes. The elections were also important because of their potential impact on tensions between the KRG and the Arab-dominated central government. These tensions, which are caused by differences over the distribution of oil revenues, disputed lands including Kirkuk and the degree of centralization of power in Iraq, are all major challenges to stability.

Thirty-four parties and individuals competed for the position of KRG president as well as to occupy 111 seats in the KRG parliament. Of 2.5 million eligible voters, 78 percent cast ballots. The region's president, KDP leader Barzani, who faced four independent challengers, won the presidency anew with 69.57 percent of the votes, with the closest competitor marking 25.32 percent. In the Kurdistan parliamentary elections the coalition of the two ruling parties, Barzani's KDP and Iraqi President Talabani's PUK, received about 57 percent of the vote while the opposition Gorran or Change party took about 23 percent.

The ruling alliance victory, while seen as reflecting a general desire among voters not to sacrifice the relative security of their region, was tempered by the opposition's significant gains, which cast doubt on the alliance's 18-year monopoly on power. In the previous election in 2024, the alliance had run virtually unopposed and won all but seven of the 100 parliamentary seats up for grabs.

The achievements of the opposition Change movement, which railed against corruption and raised the reformist flag, reflect growing discontent within Kurdish society as well as a genuine need for economic, social and cultural reforms. Although the election did not bring about a change in the ruling parties, its outcome impacts the political process and stability not only in the Kurdistan Region but in Iraq in general and potentially in the entire region in the years ahead.

While the opposition did not win, it did succeed in changing the way politics is conducted in the region. The gains it registered in a short period of time (in only three months the opposition parties managed to gain almost 24 seats) give hope to people that peaceful change through democratic means is possible. And the slogans of political, social and economic reform direct the focus of the people toward their real interests rather than stimulating nationalist aspirations that could create tensions with neighboring countries.

Yet both the two ruling parties and the opposition also appealed to nationalist sentiment during the campaign; this, some fear, could worsen tensions with Baghdad. The leaders of the Change list accused the two main parties of not doing enough to assert Kurdish claims to the disputed territories. Both sides say that asserting Kurdish claims to the land is a priority. This attitude may reflect nationalist Kurdish aspirations, but it may also reflect internal politics. Real change needs time as well as real leaders.- Published 6/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Safa A. Hussein is a former deputy member of the dissolved Iraqi Governing Council. He served as a brigadier general in the Iraqi Air Force. Currently he serves in the Iraqi National Security Council.

A new architecture for politics in Kurdistan
 Hiwa Osman

The recent landmark election in Iraqi Kurdistan ushered in a new era in Kurdish politics. It changed the layout of the political scene and restored people's confidence in themselves and in the political and democratic processes of their region.

To the ruling parties' surprise, a powerful new bloc, Change, has emerged. It mostly drew its votes from the constituency of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. On the surface, the group seems to be secondary and relatively small in numbers. But the reality is different.

The emergence of Change has complicated the power-sharing arrangement between the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, led by the region's elected president, Massoud Barzani. The PUK and the KDP have an understanding, referred to widely as the "strategic agreement". It came after years of fighting during a civil war in the 1990s and it states that the two sides enjoy a 50-50 share of almost everything. The winning bloc, the Kurdistani List, comes from the coalition of these two ruling parties and the strategic agreement is clearly reflected in it. The candidates' names on the list are in equal numbers from both sides and are listed alternatively. It is estimated the Kurdistani List will get 60 seats, meaning that when the seats are allocated each side gets 30. The Change list is expected to get approximately 24 seats.

But Change's seats are drawn mostly from the PUK grassroots. This situation poses a dilemma for both the KDP and the PUK when negotiating the formation of a new government and new power-sharing arrangements. If the KDP accepts a 50-50 power-share of the government as stated in the strategic agreement, this would imply that the Change list had drawn away its voters as well as those of the PUK. But leading KDP figures privately say that a new power-sharing agreement with the PUK should now reflect the "real size" of each party. Some KDP members even say that their party's real size is half of the total number of seats of the two lists jointly (60+24=84) and the rest of the Kurdistani list is the PUK's. This gives the KDP 42 seats, the PUK 18 and the change list 24.

If this view prevails among the KDP ranks, they will not be prepared to give the prime minister's post to the PUK. The PUK was supposed to get the prime minister's position two years ago but as a result of internal party disputes it failed to nominate a candidate, hence the post remained with the KDP's Nechirvan Barzani.

But a real dilemma would emerge for the KDP if it indeed refuses to give an equal share to the PUK. The latter might have the option of breaking away from the alliance with around 30 MPs and creating a new bloc with the Change list. This would officially end the 50-50 deal between the two parties. The dilemma for the PUK on the other hand would be to either accept a smaller share with its current ally, the KDP, or go to the Change list, whose campaign was mostly concentrated on attacking the PUK.

As for Change, it sees itself in a win-win situation. It has stated that it would stay in opposition. But it may also get an offer to join the government from either of the two, or both, ruling parties.

Another key group in parliament is the mostly-Islamic Service and Reform List, an alliance of four parties. It is expected to get approximately 14 seats. There are also 11 quota seats allocated for the Turkmen, Assyrian and Armenian communities of the region. The latter are traditionally a bloc allied with the KDP; and the Service and Reform List is traditionally in the government and not in the opposition.

It takes 56 seats to form a government. Either the Kurdistani List and any, or both, of these two lists form a government; or the Kurdistani List breaks up and new alliances emerge. In short, this election may have changed Kurdish politics forever.

Whatever the end result, the Kurdish voter today feels confident, powerful and trustful of the political and democratic process of the Kurdish Region. "We have demonstrated that we are a lively nation and that democracy works here too," said a student. "If we don't like our leaders, we can change them".- Published 6/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Hiwa Osman is Iraq country director at the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, Baghdad.

Ramifications for the Kurdistan Region and for Iraq
 Khaled Salih

On July 25, the people of Kurdistan Region in Iraq for the first time elected a regional president and for the second time a new parliament. The elections took place in accordance with Iraq's new constitution, which was approved by a popular vote in October 2024 and recognizes the region and its institutions as a federal unit in Iraq.

The turn-out of 79 percent of the region's 2.5 million eligible voters was seen by political leaders and outside observers as a very positive sign of democratic engagement. Except for a couple of minor security incidents, the elections were peaceful in an area seen by many extremist Islamist groups throughout Iraq as a close ally of the US and as too secular to be imagined as part of their Islamist state.

Many commentators and analysts were critical of political arrangements for both parliament and the government during the past three years, charging that there was no provision for a proper opposition. Without exception, they all missed the point that the political parties in Kurdistan had settled for an all-inclusive power-sharing agreement for two important reasons.

First, in order to ease the tension between political forces that in the recent past (mid-1990s) fought each other, an extensive and intensive process of reconciliation could work only if all relevant players were part of the political process. Power-sharing also allowed the divided administration of Kurdistan (between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) to be reunited.

Second, at the federal level Kurdistan needed a united front representing the entire region and all its political views in the Iraqi parliament and government. Although not without difficulty, both goals were achieved in the past three years. Kurdistan became more internally peaceful and secure and the Kurdistan Alliance List remained a united and active player in Baghdad.

However, this time things were different. In the July 2024 elections, the voters reelected Massoud Barzani, the current president of the region, from among five candidates. Barzani represented the Kurdistani List (composed of the KDP he leads and the PUK led by Jalal Talabani, currently Iraq's president). In 2024, the president was elected by the parliament and there were no other candidates. Now, the reelection of Barzani by 70 percent of the popular votes will strengthen his position and enable him to play a more active role in the coming four years in the region as well as in relation to Baghdad.

For the parliamentary election, the voters this time could choose among 25 parties, lists and individuals. In contrast to the last parliamentary election, there were diverse political programs, alternatives and messages to take into account. A major shift occurred with the PUK. One of Talabani's veteran aides, Newshirwan Mustafa, formed his own alternative, the Change List. Another change was a new alliance called the Service and Reform List (between two Kurdish Islamist parties, one socialist group and a communist politician who was expelled from his party).

Out of 111 seats in parliament, 11 are reserved for the minorities in Kurdistan (five for Assyrians, five for Turkmen and one for Armenians). The preliminary results show the Kurdistani List (KDP and PUK) gaining 59 seats, Change List 25 seats, Service and Reform 14 seats and Islamic Movement in Kurdistan/Iraq two seats. In sharp contrast to the past three years, now we will witness heated debate in parliament on a wide range of internal Kurdish issues as well as how to deal with the federal government in Baghdad.

Although the Kurdistani List will have no difficulty in forming a majority government (that most probably will also be supported by nine out of 11 minority candidates), the major difficulty facing the Kurdistan Region is the next federal election in January 2024. If the current provincial pattern of alliances is repeated at the federal level, the risk of weakened Kurdish representation in Baghdad is obvious.

In the coming four years, Kurdistan leaders will face several major political issues. Internally, these include security, reconstruction and development, further democratization of the political system, allegations of corruption, issues of internal displacement, provincial elections and most probably political party reform. A majority government with a vibrant opposition in the parliament should facilitate dealing with them.

In relation to Baghdad, several constitutional issues will dominate the agenda: the boundaries of the Kurdistan Region (the final status of the disputed territories), the revenue-sharing law, the oil and gas law, the status of the Peshmerga (Kurdish military) and the power-sharing mechanism at the federal level. A strongly-supported president might be able to push more adamantly for the implementation of Iraq's constitution as it was agreed in August 2024 and voted for by four out of five Iraqis throughout the country two months later.- Published 6/8/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org

Khaled Salih is an independent analyst and consultant based in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq. He is former senior advisor to the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government.

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