Opinion – Iraqi Kurdistan: Old structures, new realities

How Talabani’s continued absence from the political scene and the PUK’s decline may rock the peace in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Namo Abdulla – 12.3.2014 – Al Jazeera – Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has been in hospital in Germany for more than a year after he suffered a stroke in December 2012. Because of the highly restrictive access to his private place, nobody really knows how he is doing except for a few people including his immediate family members who claim his health condition is “improving”.

If that is the case, then it is certainly not advisable for him to be informed of what his political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has become since he left Iraq. PUK is no longer the strong and united party that enjoyed the support of nearly half of Iraqi Kurds for decades. In 1992, it won 49 percent of the votes and would, for two decades, remain a neck-and-neck rival of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the tribal-based group of Mullah Mustafa Barzani from which it splintered in 1975.  

But last September’s regional parliamentary elections showed PUK’s popularity had hit an all-time low. It won only one-sixth of the votes, meaning the secular nationalist party is now only a third party whose participation is not even technically needed to form a cabinet. KDP, which Talabani fought against for much of his political life, has emerged as the strongest force with near-absolute control over the region’s abundant oil wealth.

As more serious conflicts in Syria and elsewhere shifted international attention from Iraqi Kurdistan’s elections, PUK’s defeat was a serious event that went largely unnoticed.

As more serious conflicts in Syria and elsewhere shifted international attention from Iraqi Kurdistan’s elections, PUK’s defeat was a serious event that went largely unnoticed.

It was nothing like the kind of electoral defeat of a modern political party we see in Western nations. The devastating defeat of this Kurdish group may also represent the failure of a certain ideological worldview and a change in the Iraqi Kurdish region’s demographics, but more importantly in practice, it threatens to alter the region’s political landscape and its much-admired stability.

First of all, the elections made it all clear that PUK’s survival was closely tied to the 81-year-old Talabani’s personal charisma. That has become even clearer after the elections as top PUK leaders engaged in a dispute over who should assume the party leadership after Talabani. The only thing that has helped the defeated PUK maintain its relevance at this time is the thousands-strong militia wing it controls.

Militias pose biggest threat

The presence of well-armed militias including that of the KDP is the primary reason we might be seeing the onset of an even bigger crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan. The fact that the two parties have been allies for more than a decade but never agreed to dissolve their loyalist militias and replace them with an institutionalised police and armed force shows how much distrust continues to exist in the Kurdish political arena.

More than four months after the elections, Iraqi Kurdistan continues to be without a government. As is the case with political deadlock, ordinary people are the primary victims. Critical public projects have come to a halt. This oil-rich region, which has attracted investment from global giants such as Exxon-Mobil, has not even been able to pay the salaries of its public employees on time. 

As the political crisis unfolds, there is an increasing sense of insecurity in Sulaimaniyah, PUK’s stronghold, which witnessed several assassinations and explosions over the past year. Most notable has been the mysterious death of Talabani’s chief bodyguard and a critical magazine editor.

In October, Shaswar Abdul-Wahid, owner of Iraqi Kurdistan’s first independent television network, NRT, was shot and badly wounded. Disappointed at Iraqi Kurdistan’s largely dysfunctional legal system, he has threatened to sue a number of PUK officials over the shooting in an international court.

The reasons for the current political deadlock are two-fold. Firstly, even though PUK leaders, some more openly than others, have accepted their electoral defeat in words, but not in practice. The stubbornness they have shown in jockeying for key government positions such as deputy prime minister, vice president, and speaker of parliament, is a clear indication of their unwillingness to compromise. The only real power existing behind PUK’s persistence is, of course, not the public but a loyal militia.

A slice of the pie

The second reason is Gorran, a newly established self-proclaimed “reformist” party that came second in the latest elections. Gorran’s leader is Nawshirwan Mustafa, co-founder of the PUK who splintered from the party and established his own group in 2009. Mustafa has made it clear he does not want to remain as an opposition party like it has been over the past four years. It also wants to join the government and get a slice of the pie of the oil-rich enclave.

But since it finished second, Gorran, unlike the PUK, has the right to demand for the second most important government positions. Even though KDP, which won nearly 38 percent of the votes, can technically go ahead and form a government with Gorran alone, it is afraid to do so without PUK’s approval. Nobody has more to lose than the KDP leadership should Iraqi Kurdistan become unstable. Directly or indirectly, KDP leaders have virtual monopoly over most lucrative business and investment projects including oil and construction in both the regional capital Erbil and Duhok.

Ergo, the current challenge is how to form a cabinet that pleases at least three groups: PUK, Gorran, and KDP. That’s of course if we don’t mention Islamists, who have gained more than 15 percent of the votes. As the global trend of political Islam- from Egypt to Turkey- is not currently having its best day – Iraqi Kurdistan’s Islamists have largely remained silent in all the jockeying made for power and, in turn, wealth in Kurdistan.

Combining the three parties, which have different agendas and ideas, in one coalition is as difficult to achieve in the first place, as it is to maintain in the long run. How would they agree, for example, on controversial and not-so-transparent policies such as oil? Will the government be similar to the Iraqi central government, where Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders disagree on almost everything?

But the risk would be greater if the government was not inclusive. The exclusion of either Gorran or PUK puts the stability of the region in jeopardy. Because Gorran does not operate an armed wing, it may not pose a threat as big as PUK. But it will no doubt see any attempt to exclude it as unfair and it has the ability to mobilise tens of thousands of people on the street for months. That is exactly what it did in 2011 for months when it realised change was impossible to achieve through a rubberstamp parliament.

To know how serious this crisis could get, one need not look back farther than 1990s when KDP and PUK militias fought a bloody civil war for more than three years.

Iraqi Kurdistan might look good to outsiders as a peaceful region in a turbulent Iraq, but when compared to a relatively stable and institutionalised society, there’s certainly a long way to go.

Nobody is now in control of the Kurdish future more than the Kurds themselves. It is hoped that members of the ruling elite have learned a lesson from history and realise they have too much to lose should they fail to reach a meaningful compromise.

Namo Abdulla is Washington bureau chief for Rudaw, a 24-hour news channel in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He hosts an English-language show on Rudaw called Inside America, which discusses US foreign policy in the Middle East.