The parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan has voted to extend Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani’s tenure for two years amid intense political arguments over the structure of power in the region. The announcement comes at a critical time for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), as the development of an oil pipeline to Turkey offers the real prospect of exporting significant amounts of oil in a manner beyond Baghdad’s control. Dissent among the region’s political parties, however, particularly in the ongoing absence of Barzani’s coalition partner, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, risks hindering both the region’s security and its representatives’ strength in Iraqi politics.
The parliament of the Kurdistan region of Iraq voted on June 30 to postpone the region’s presidential elections for two years. President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) will be allowed to stay in his post until 2015, although parliamentary and provincial council elections will take place in September 2013 as scheduled. The motion, pushed through parliament by the KDP and its coalition partner the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) on the basis of an earlier agreementbetween the two, drew the ire of opposition parties, promptingfistfights and the throwing of water bottles in the parliamentary chamber. The developments highlight the KDP’s continued dominance of the federal region’s politics under Barzani, but also demonstrate the extent of opposition to Barzani’s rule.
The official reason given for the postponement of presidential elections was the need to amend the Kurdistan region’s constitution, passed by the regional parliament in 2009 but never ratified. Opponents to Barzani’s continued rule have protestedthat the draft constitution was forced through parliament by the KDP-PUK alliance during a period of caretaker government, and that it was subsequently edited by the ruling parties while a significant number of parliamentarians were absent. The electoral delay was proposed to allow political parties to air their views on the region’s draft constitution and to produce a new elections law.
The political dispute concerns the basic arrangement of executive political power in Iraqi Kurdistan: how the president is elected. Massoud Barzani was elected by the parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2005. In 2009, however, the draft constitution amended the law to allow direct election of the president by popular vote, diminishing parliament’s power at the expense of the presidency. It also declared that the president “may be re-elected for a second term as of the date this constitution enters into force.” The same year, however, saw the splintering of the Gorran (Change) Movement from the PUK, adding a new and unknown element of the region’s politics and diminishing the established party’s hold on its traditional areas of influence. The two developments in tandem allowed Barzani to consolidate power to an extensive degree.
Opposition parties, principally Gorran, argue that the constitution must be amended once more to return the right to elect the president to parliamentarians, increasing parliamentary oversight of the executive. They demand that the constitution be returned to parliament for vote, and that such a vote take place before presidential elections can be held. Three opposition groups – Gorran, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) – have also opposed President Barzani’s attempts to take control of the constitution-consultation process, rejecting Barzani’s request that all political parties in the region be involved in the discussing the draft constitution, whether or not they are currently represented in parliament. Barzani’s KDP, by contrast, has advocated a popular referendum on the constitution, counting on its leverage over patronage networks and Barzani’s popularity to ensure victory.
The PUK’s acquiescence is further evidence of its increasingly junior role within the Kurdistan Alliance. The party has been without its leader, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, since December 2012, when Talabani suffered a stroke and was removed to Germany for treatment. President Talabani, who formed the PUK upon breaking with the KDP in the 1970s, has been the party’s secretary-general since 1975, and power has long been consolidated around his inner circle. With Talabani unlikely to return to full strength after numerous health scares, however, challenges to Talabani’s rule have been emerging. Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, is a key player, with strong relations with Baghdad, with the KDP, and with neighboring Iran. She has nevertheless insisted that she is not interested in replacing her husband in Suleimaniyah or in Baghdad. Talabani’s son Qubad, formerly the KRG's representative in Washington, DC, was recalled in 2012 to take up a strategic planning position within the prime minister’s office – a move that was seen as intended to introduce him to the region’s public and groom him for a future leadership role.
Former KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih and PUK co-founder Kosrat Rasul Ali, formerly prime minister of the PUK’s Suleimaniyah-based administration prior to the region’s reunification, head factions within the PUK and are key candidates to succeed Talabani. Salih is popular with key international interlocutors, particularly the US and UK as well as Iran, but faces opposition from Hero Ibrahim. Kosrat Rasul gained popular legitimacy among PUK supporters as a former commander of the PUK’s Peshmerga forces, but is knownto be in poor health. Salih recently led a push to force Hero Ibrahim and the Talabani family to share power within the party, threateningto resign unless Salih and his supporters were given a greater say in the party’s strategic and financial decision-making. The threats are thought to have related in particular to control of the party’s funding streams for the parliamentary elections, suggesting that Salih is seeking to build his own patronage networks within the party to establish himself as the main candidate to succeed Talabani as its head.
As inter-party rivalries continue to hamper the PUK, the party is losing influence both to its larger coalition partner and to its own splinter, Gorran. The party’s power base in Suleimaniyah was diminished significantly by the Gorran split in 2009, and its continued floundering in Talabani’s absence renders it vulnerable to further losses. The PUK is caught between the need to balance Massoud Barzani’s power and the need to fend off the challenge within its traditional area of influence from Gorran, which paints the PUK as a partner in a corrupt and nepotistic government.
The question of Barzani’s presidential extension is an example of such difficulties for the PUK. In fact, since Barzani was elected president directly by the voters and not by the legislature, parliamentarians have no authority to grant him an extended tenure. The September timeframe announced for elections, however, forced parties to take a public position. Advocates of a strong KDP-PUK alliance demand that the PUK support Barzani’s presidency, fearing that without the protection of the larger party, the PUK will lose further supporters to Gorran. A strong current of dissent within the PUK, however, emerged in 2011 from the demands of demonstrators protesting in Suleimaniyah against government autocracy and corruption. The dissenting faction has opposed the constitution as drafted, arguing that it will further strengthen the KDP. This faction was strong enough to encourage Talabani to agree with his former lieutenant Nawshirwan Mustafa of Gorran to push for the resubmission of the draft constitution to parliament in September 2012 and to call for the president once more to be elected by parliament – an initiative that stalled when Talabani was taken ill. As a result, and seeking to gloss over its own internal factional struggles, the PUK has called officially for consensus between political parties on the constitution question.
The struggle over the presidency comes at an important time for the Kurdistan region, and particularly for its president. Economic relations with Turkey are reported to be nearing an inflection: a converted natural gas pipeline through Dohuk province is nearing the Turkey border at Fishkhabour, offering a method of exporting oil from the Kurdistan region to Turkey independently of Baghdad’s control. Barzani has pushed hard to win over the Turks, improving Ankara-Erbil relations significantly at the expense of each side’s relations with Baghdad. Meanwhile, Barzani recently heldan emergency meeting with representatives of Syrian Kurdish parties following clashes between the People’s Protection Units (YPG), under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and protesters in the Syrian city of Amude. Barzani brokered a deal between the PYD and the Kurdish National Council (KNC) – which Barzani supports – in July 2012. He has invested himself heavily in a leadership role over the Syrian Kurds, and while the vote over extending his presidency was taking place, Barzani himself was in Paris discussing Syria with French President François Hollande.
Tensions between Kurdish parties within the Kurdistan region, moreover, risk diminishing the strength of the Kurdistan Alliance in Baghdad and on federal Iraq’s recently elected provincial councils. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki performed less strongly than expected across Iraq at these elections, as did his key Sunni Arab opponent, Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi. The Kurdish Brotherhood and Coexistence List, meanwhile, performed well in Ninewa, where it gained 11 of the province’s 39 seats. Nujaifi’s brother Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Ninewa and provincial head of the brothers’ Mutahidun list, looks likely to ally with smaller Sunni Arab parties in order to prevent a return to the Kurdish government that the province saw in 2005. He nevertheless will be reluctant, and possibly unable, to sideline the Kurdish list to the extent that his Al-Hadbaa party did in 2009, having since reached rapprochement with the Kurds that has had benefits in national level politics.
With Maliki’s attempts to fashion a political majority among Arab parties in Baghdad hindered by the underwhelming performance of his State of Law Alliance and his Sunni ally Saleh al-Mutlak’s Arab Iraqiyya, there may be an opportunity for the Kurdistan Alliance to play a greater role in Iraq’s political process. Internal divisions, however, will hamper the Kurds on both front, and will make it easier for Maliki to use Arabism as a pole around which to unite against the Kurds, as he did in passing the 2013 federal budget. Gorran MP Latif Mustafa highlighted this disunity, appealing on July 5 for the Iraqi federal government or parliament to intervene in the Kurdistan parliament’s decision in order to prevent the extension of Barzani’s term which, he argued, “will defame Iraq.” Maliki’s visit to Erbil in June, while symbolic in itself, does not appear to have produced any tangible results. Maliki has since warned Russian oil company Gazprom that it should not consider buying stakes in oil fields in Iraqi Kurdistan until a federal oil law is passed – a project that has been stalled since 2007 and shows little sign of progress. Deputy Prime Minister for Energy Affairs Hussein al-Shahristani insisted following the Erbil trip that key issues of contention, such as oil exports and payments to oil companies working in Iraqi Kurdistan, were not even discussed. With Barzani’s position likely secure at least for another two years, he is likely to continue to push for enhanced economic ties with Turkey.
Barzani’s control of the key issues for the future of Iraqi Kurdistan is entrenched, and it is highly unlikely that he will allow opposition groups to force him from the presidency in 2015. Instead, the KDP is likely to push for the adoption of a draft constitution and electoral law that will allow Barzani to run for at least one further term, allowing him to continue to oversee Iraqi Kurdistan’s continued emergence from Baghdad’s control. In so doing, however, he faces growing opposition from the region’s Islamic parties, who accuse the KDP of attempting to “secularize” the region’s laws, and Gorran, who view Barzani as a “dictator”. Unconfirmed reports of large anti-Barzani protests in Suleimaniyah following the announcement of Barzani’s presidential extension highlight the risk that the KDP’s continued consolidation of power could prompt a repeat of the 2011 protests, and with it unrest in the Kurdish region. Opposition MPs have already warned of the prospect of unrest, threatening that those “who do not respect democracy” will be “removed from their posts in the same way as in the Arab countries.” With Syrian Kurds engaged in fighting with Sunni militants across the border, and violence rising along Iraq’s disputed internal boundaries, the security that Iraqi Kurdistan has advertised in order to attract international oil companies is by no means assured for the future.
Stephen Wicken is a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.