The Presidential Politics of Kurdistan: Disputes and Interests

By Dr. Huda al-Nuaimi | This article was originally published by the Rawabet Center.

Disputes and Interests

In Iraqi Kurdistan, tensions over the upcoming presidential elections  – slated for August 20, 2015 – and disagreement between political forces both threaten a return to the pre-2003 divided administration. During the prior period, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Kurdish President Massoud Barzani ruled Erbil and Dahouk Provinces and former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) ruled Sulaymaniyah. The KDP argues that Barzani should be consensually allowed to coast to a third term on the grounds that war with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and general regional conditions require steady continuity. Other political forces reject this rationale and insist that only the democratic process should decide who the next president will be, whatever the conditions.

Barzani was elected President in 2005 and again in 2009. In 2013, political leaders agreed to extend Barzani’s term for two years as the Kurdistan regional parliament was debating a new constitution intended to replace the presidential system with a parliamentary one. In June 2014, debate over the new constitution was suspended as the region became embroiled in a violent conflict with ISIL. As Commander-in-Chief of the Peshmerga military organization and overall supervisor of military operations against ISIL, Barzani gained popular legitimacy and many prominent politicians called for anointing him president until the end of the war, at minimum.

However, other important political parties and forces in the region object to Barzani’s retaining of the presidency because of what they see as his domination of the political process and monopolization of power. Publicly and privately, there are increasing signs of widespread frustration with his administration, calls for an end to the KDP’s domination over Kurdistan, and drives for the widest possible political participation in decision-making and administrative management, especially in security and economic affairs.

The KDP and PUK

For four years after 1994, the KDP and the PUK fought each other for supremacy in Kurdistan and only ceased hostilities after American intervention and a peace deal signed in Washington in 1998. It is feared that Kurdistan’s divisions over leadership issues may develop into a crisis of confidence in the system of political and administrative allocation of power, which emulates the federal formula in use at the Iraqi national level. If such a crisis continues, divided administration may return and disagreements between Kurdish political forces over the upcoming presidential election may threaten the gains made by the Kurdistan Regional Government since its establishment following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This turn of events would also likely impact the central government in Baghdad where the Kurds have representation in the federal parliament, government, and institutions.

The disagreement over the presidency weighs heavily on relations between the two parties. The PUK is generally leftist and secular, and considers the KDP to be provincial, tribal, feudalistic, and aristocratic. The KDP, on the other hand, sees the PUK as a party of upstart bourgeois businessmen and petty bourgeoisie who defend their interests at the expense of the general welfare. Additionally, there are disagreements over relations with regional players. The KDP has struck a strong alliance with Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan while the PUK has had historical relations with Iran. Other political forces, such as the Change Movement and Kurdish Islamic leaders, object to Turkey’s infiltration of Kurdish political and public life, making them natural allies of the PUK in rejecting a third term for Barzani.

Iran’s Role

What has also become evident is an Iranian policy of sowing discord in intra-Kurdish relations by using the presidential election as a wedge issue. Iran has several concerns. First, Iran seeks to limit the Kurds’ influence following Barzani’s successes in raising Kurdistan’s stature inside and outside Iraq, fighting the Islamic State, and supporting the Iraqi Sunnis’ demands for more participation in the political process at the federal level. Second, Iran is concerned about the Iraqi Kurds’ potential move to seek full independence, a prospect that could inspire the Iranian Kurds. Third, Iran wants to limit Israel’s and Turkey’s roles in Iraqi Kurdistan which, if successful, will threaten its strategic position, and military and political stability.

Most Iranian officials believe that Barzani is committed to Kurdish independence and is maneuvering to exploit Iraq’s chaos in order to achieve it. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs, Hussein Abdel-Lahyan, has called on all Iraqi forces to respect the constitution and work to prevent partition. He also exhorted Kurdish leaders to “accept reality,†meaning that Iran will do its utmost to prevent the emergence of a Kurdish independent entity which many believe would be a geopolitical and ideological challenge to Iran. To that end, Iran has employed a quiet policy of reviving old relations with Kurdish political forces, building inroads into Kurdish politics, and cultivating new allies. Iran also succeeded in limiting the influence of Iraq’s Sunnis in the political process and in attracting a new dependent Sunni political class that benefits from sectarian allocations and participates in the Iranian-influenced government in Baghdad.

The Future

Economic conditions in Iraqi Kurdistan have exacerbated political divisions. There is widespread frustration with corruption and the misuse of power. Lower global oil prices have shrunk the Kurds’ allotment of revenue from the federal government, a situation that has exacerbated old debates and disagreements about budget allocations between Baghdad and Erbil. This shortfall of funds from the federal treasury has left Kurdish public servants without salaries for months.

The dispute over the presidential election may any time expose Kurdistan to unwarranted future conflicts. Thus for the moment one thing is sure: Kurdistan should avoid acute polarization as it faces the challenge of ISIL and seeks to codify constitutional governance.