The Critical Issue of Succession in Kurdistan (Van Wilgenburg)

Sunday, August 26, 2012 at 13:02 | Scott Lucas in EA Middle East and Turkey, Middle East and Iran

Wladimir van Wilgenburg writes for EA:If you wish to understand the future of Kurdish politics and its significant role in the evolution of democracy in Iraq and the Kurdistan region, then an introduction to the question of succession is essential.

This week’s case? Jalal Talabani is both the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Iraqi President. According to Kurdistan Tribune, Talabani has been absent from Iraq when he left for a knee operation on 20 June, feeding speculation about his ill health.

Succession has been a critical issue in the Muslim world for almost 1400 years, since the death of Prophet Mohammed and the struggle between the Shiites and Sunnis over who should lead Islam. It is present today in violence between religious factions in countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria. Those struggles have led to the death of thousands of Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey, as they often fought each other before dealing with the central government.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, the Barzani tribe and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) managed to deal with this issue by passing the leadership mantle from hand to hand since the 1930s. However, beyond the criticism that this is far from democratic, some observers foresee tensions in the future between two relatives of KDP head Massoud Barzani: his nephew, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, and his son Masrour Barzani, head of Kurdistan’s Security Council.

Nechirvan Barzani allegedly considers himself to be the legitimate successor to Massoud Barzani, since the latter only became the head of the KDP after Nechirvan’s father died from a heart attack in 1987. The KDP has always denied this conflict.

So far, only the Islamic Union of Kurdistan seems to have managed the succession problem, well, replacing their leader through an internal election. The Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK) also recently replaced its head, and it remains to be seen if the centralized Islamic Group (IMK) will follow with an election.

Meanwhile, the PUK may have even bigger problems than the KDP if Jalal Talabani passes from the scene — a warning sounded by the US Ambassador in a cable in 2008. Nobody expects that Qubad Talabani, KRG’s former representative in the US, will succeed his father. The PUK consists of several power factions, and it is also challenged by Nawshirwan Mustafa, the former deputy of Talabani, who created the opposition party Gorran (Change).

The PUK could be led by Kosrat Rasul, Qubad Talabani, or Barham Salih. However, an internal power struggle within PUK could lead to Gorran taking over the city of Suleymaniyah and/or PUK-members joining KDP or Gorran. Such a prospect may have played a role in the recent postponement of local Kurdish elections.

Questions will arise over who is going to take over Talabani’s role in Baghdad in dealing with the Iranians and with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki or his successor. There will be concern over what happens with oil-rich Kirkuk, which is almost completely controlled by PUK but is still fraught by political divisions.

To complicate matters further, the Gorran party will also have to face the same problem as PUK in the future, with tensions within Gorran between younger members and older, conservative ex-PUK counterparts.

Nobody can project what will happen in the future. It is clear, however, that succession politics will not only affect Kurdistan but also the wider Iraqi political scene. And this is not just a “Kurdish problem” — others in the Middle East will also have to grapple with a similar challenge.