After Iraqi Kurdistan’s Thwarted Independence Bid
What’s new? Elections in 2018 confirmed that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) remain the dominant forces in Iraqi Kurdish politics. But fallout from the 2017 Kurdish independence referendum has undermined inter-party cooperation and thus weakened the two parties’ bargaining position vis-à-vis Baghdad.
Why does it matter? Depending on how KDP and PUK leaders renegotiate their relationship, overdue reforms in the Kurdish region and talks with Baghdad could both move forward. Progress would allow Kurdish leaders to minimise the region’s vulnerability to external threats and help it recover from the damage caused by the referendum.
What should be done? Backed by the U.S. and EU member states, the UN should seize the opportunities presented by government formation in Erbil to encourage institutional reforms in the Kurdish region and a sustainable settlement with Baghdad on the two main outstanding issues: revenue sharing and the status of the disputed territories.
The furious reaction to the September 2017 Kurdish independence referendum – in the wake of which Iraqi forces recaptured most of the country’s disputed territories – has forced the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan’s two main political parties to consider rebuilding their partnership and jointly re-engaging with Baghdad about outstanding differences. These steps are a strategic necessity if these parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), are to advance the Kurdish region’s interests. Yet inter- and intra-party rivalries, as well as leadership contests, are undermining any inclination in that direction. The referendum backlash also accelerated the erosion of both the parties’ internal democratic processes and the region’s governing institutions, while strengthening family-based rule. Any international effort to advance negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad should begin by encouraging renewed KDP-PUK partnership and reinvigorating the push for political reform in the Kurdish region.
The year 2017 was disastrous for Iraqi Kurdistan. The KDP and PUK had hoped to trade their fight alongside the Western coalition to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) for Western support for the Kurdish independence drive. But the two parties frittered away any advantage they might have derived from the battlefield victory over ISIS with an ill-timed, KDP-led referendum initiative. Not only did they lose control of large swathes of the disputed territories and incur the wrath of just about every important global or regional power except Israel, but they also deepened political polarisation in the Kurdish region amid reciprocal cries of betrayal when the curtain came down on the referendum gamble.
In October 2018, the appointment of Adel Abdul Mahdi, a man known as friendly to the Kurds, as Iraq’s prime minister presented the Kurds with an opportunity to settle outstanding issues such as the disputed territories and revenue sharing. Yet the KDP and PUK cannot seize it if their engagement in Baghdad remains disjointed. For the time being, they seem more inclined to prioritise unilateral deals with powerful Shiite political-military networks in Baghdad. These may deliver quick but only fragile gains.
The two parties’ erstwhile strategic partnership, forged by their respective leaders Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani more than a decade ago and an anchor of the region’s stability since then, did not survive the turmoil of 2017 and Talabani’s death that same year. It is proving difficult to resuscitate the partnership or to create a solid alternative foundation for the region’s future. The intra-Kurdish rift complicates relations not only with the Iraqi prime minister, but also with the new president, Barham Salih of the PUK, whose appointment the KDP opposed. Iraqi Kurdistan’s principal weakness is the fact that, since the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has failed to build institutions that could regulate the region’s political system autonomous of the two former rebel parties. Today the region is moving backward. Both institutions and political parties are in crisis, hostage to a web of party figures who are inter-connected through family and/or patronage interests.
The problem starts with the parties themselves, and the erosion of internal democratic procedures that could ensure stable leadership renewal. Leadership councils and political bureaus have ceased to perform as platforms of consultation. Instead, personal and family interests prevail in putting forward candidates for office or taking policy decisions. If this trend continues, it will further empower leaders who think that Kurdistan could re-emerge from the post-referendum crisis through party and family networks rather than intra- and inter-party cooperation and accountable institutions. Hardliners also aim at regaining ground lost after the referendum through party-led deals with Shiite parties in Baghdad rather than by engaging, jointly, with the Abdul Mahdi government. Such deals empower parties over institutions in both the Kurdish region and Baghdad and thus diminish the prospects of either the Erbil or Baghdad governments delivering on negotiated settlements on outstanding issues.
The course of Iraqi Kurdistan’s politics depends on whether reformist or hard-line forces prevail within the two leading parties.
In 2018, national and regional parliamentary elections reaffirmed the KDP’s and PUK’s dominance in Iraqi Kurdistan, despite the referendum stumble. They won to a large extent because the population appears to feel alienated from politics, and thus resigned to the KDP-PUK condominium, while the opposition is divided and short on strategic vision. Yet the continuation of politics as usual promises no solution for the region’s deep political crisis. Reforms that would reinstitute oversight mechanisms, such as independent commissions and an independent judiciary authority to check the executive, are overdue.
The course of Iraqi Kurdistan’s politics depends on whether reformist or hardline forces prevail within the two leading parties, the KDP in particular because of its overall dominance. So does the course of talks with Baghdad. If KDP reformists are able to overcome party and family allegiances and make common cause with kindred spirits in the PUK, they could together push for institutional changes in the KRG and open the way for negotiations with Baghdad on a host of outstanding issues. But if anti-reform elements impose themselves in the KDP, the party might try to slake its apparent thirst for hegemony in the Kurdish region, as exemplified by the referendum drive. Such a move, in turn, would bolster the PUK’s hardliners.
International partners that have heavily invested in the Kurdish region in the fight against ISIS should be concerned that the region’s democratic governance and its institutions’ strength will backslide now that the jihadist group is defeated. To prevent such regression, they should encourage revival of oversight mechanisms that would enable the Kurdish population to hold their leaders accountable.
The U.S., whose influence in Iraq largely depends on smooth intra-Kurdish cooperation in both Erbil and Baghdad, should be particularly concerned by this matter. So, too, should EU member states, which are committed to the strategic objective of strengthening a balanced, accountable and democratic system in Iraq. The UN Assistance Mission for Iraq will also need intra-Kurdish cooperation as it readies itself to mediate discussions between Erbil and Baghdad on disputed territories and revenue-sharing.
These institutions could help the Kurdish region overcome internal divisions, preserve accountability mechanisms vis-à-vis an increasingly disenfranchised population and reinvigorate reformist elements who are better positioned and prepared to negotiate with Baghdad’s central authorities. This way, the self-inflicted wound of the independence referendum will have a chance to heal and the Kurdish body politic to regenerate.
Erbil/Brussels, 27 March 2019
A mere two weeks following the Kurdish independence vote on 25 September 2017, the Iraqi army assisted by paramilitary forces pushed into Kirkuk in a surprise move. It seized not only the city and its oil fields, but most of the adjoining “disputed territories” – mixed-population areas along the boundary of the Kurdish region – from the two main Kurdish parties’ forces, which had held these areas since the arrival of ISIS in June 2014. Moreover, the Council of Representatives in Baghdad voted to cut the region’s share of the national budget from 17 to 12 per cent.
These twin developments deprived an already economically troubled region of its main sources of income. Kurdish leaders took withering criticism: they had raised popular expectations by staging the referendum, only to fail to deliver. The loss of Kirkuk and its oil wealth, control of which many saw – and still see – as the main instrument for gaining independence was a particularly sharp blow. It looked as if the two parties had surrendered the gains they had made since 1991, when the region first struggled free of the Saddam Hussein regime.
On 1 November 2017, Masoud Barzani, the referendum’s principal champion, announced he was stepping down from his post as the Kurdish region’s president. A year later, he declared:
The referendum’s timing may not have been ideal, but it was our right to state our will. We lost less than if we had lost our will and determination. … With the referendum, international principles and rights, such as the right to self-determination, proved to be just empty talk with no basis in reality. We now comprehend that we have to stand by ourselves and be strong on our own.
Barzani’s seeming defiance notwithstanding, the referendum backlash, coming on the heels of four years of war against the Islamic State (ISIS), forced Kurdish leaders to take a more pragmatic approach in domestic and regional politics.
Masoud Barzani’s resignation raised the political profile of the region’s prime minister, his nephew Nechirvan Barzani. Known to have quietly opposed the decision to hold a referendum, the prime minister reached out to parties at home and abroad to mend frayed relationships. He also continued to pursue a program of economic reform and put payment of public-sector salaries back on schedule. A Western diplomat in Erbil summed it up: “We thought Iraqi Kurdistan would be no more. Yet within a couple of months, Nechirvan had been received in Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and Kurdistan had once again placed itself on the map”.
Yet this turn to pragmatism was short-lived. Hardline figures who had encouraged the referendum, especially in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), rebounded after the two main Kurdish parties won elections in the absence of viable opposition. Iraq’s parliamentary election on 12 May 2018, and the elections for the Kurdish parliament on 30 September 2018, marked a renaissance for the KDP and, to a lesser extent, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Suleimaniya. In both elections, the KDP and PUK won the largest number of votes in the region, albeit amid accusations of fraud. The KDP, in particular, saw its dominance in the Kurdish region reaffirmed in the general elections, and emerged as the undisputed winner in the regional polls. This triumph placed it firmly in the driver’s seat for government formation in the region.
On 3 December 2018, the KDP nominated Nechirvan Barzani to succeed his uncle as regional president and Masrour Barzani, Masoud Barzani’s son, for the position of prime minister. (Both candidates are awaiting a vote in the Kurdish parliament on forming the government.) The latter nomination signalled a comeback of the party’s hardline factions led by Masrour, who had been in charge of the region’s security apparatus. Arguably, the premiership is more powerful than the presidency now that Masoud Barzani is no longer holding it and instead has become the “power behind the throne” as KDP leader. The PUK, in turn, regained its status as the region’s second largest party (which it had lost to the pro-reform Gorran movement in the 2013 elections) and consolidated its standing in Baghdad, securing the presidency of Iraq for its candidate, Barham Salih.
The selection of Adel Abdul Mahdi, a man known to be friendly to the Kurds, as Iraq’s next prime minister, and growing intra-Shiite divisions, together opened new opportunities for the two Kurdish parties to regain some of the political ground in Baghdad they had lost in the referendum’s aftermath. Yet this prospect largely hinges on their ability to establish a stable balance of power in the Kurdish region that translates into a working partnership in the Iraqi capital.
In the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, a U.S. protective umbrella allowed the KDP and PUK to consolidate their control in the Kurdish region, establishing the basis for an autonomous administration – the KRG – in their respective zones of influence. After the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, the two parties struck a strategic partnership in 2007 that provided for equal shares in governance and resource allocation, with the declared objective of consolidating the region’s autonomous status and build up a unified administration and security apparatus. Yet the two parties’ stranglehold on the region’s institutions prevented other parties from emerging as effective alternatives to the KDP/PUK, encouraged high-level corruption and plunged the region’s political system into a crisis once the strategic partnership fell apart in 2017.
The KDP-PUK power balance was already under strain at the time when ISIS rushed into Mosul and adjoining areas in 2014, threatening the region. International support that poured in for the fight against ISIS disrupted the balance further. This support empowered cliques of party figures with weapons and money, also undermining the parties’ internal democratic procedures.
The independence referendum and its aftermath concluded a chapter in Kurdish history wherein the KRG was to turn the region into a functioning parliamentary democracy with a consolidated federal status in Iraq. Instead, the two main parties have gradually fallen hostage to networks that usually comprise members of the same family. Party institutions such as leadership councils and political bureaus have ceased to carry out their designated function, and party congresses are no longer forums for consultation and decision-making. Family relations, instead, have become the strongest currency of Kurdish politics, and informal personal agreements have replaced formal mechanisms of decision-making.
Since Iraqi Kurdistan started to organise itself as an autonomous region after the popular uprising against the Saddam regime in 1991, members of the same family have traditionally held important roles within the political parties as well as in KRG institutions. These institutions gained strength whenever networks cut across party or family boundaries, creating synergies between figures sharing the same policy approach or interests. For example, since 2014, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, despite being a Barzani and deputy leader of the KDP under his uncle, has worked in close cooperation with Qubad Talabani, son of the PUK’s historical leader Jalal Talabani and the region’s deputy prime minister, acting as a counterweight to harder-line elements in both the PUK and KDP, including in the Barzani family.
The independence referendum outlined more clearly the boundaries between a group of “reformists”, whose connections transcend family and party, and “hardliners”, who have entrenched themselves in family and party politics. Most of the reformists opposed the vote (even if they ended up casting theirs in favour), not because they were, or are, against Kurdish independence but because they saw asserting it as an ill-timed blunder, wrought by Masoud Barzani’s over-reliance on foreign advisers and hardline senior party cadres. By contrast, hardliners wholeheartedly supported the referendum decision. While on the political sidelines, the PUK’s leadership also fractured between referendum champions and critics.
Even if the reformists guided the region out of the post-referendum crisis, family-based politics re-emerged as the preeminent anchor of continuity. The KDP rebounded, confident that its family-based decision-making structures would preserve party unity and compensate for the fragility of the region’s governing institutions, which the party has weakened with this very approach. Within the KDP, family-based politics serve to moderate and balance the political rivalry between Masrour and Nechirvan Barzani, both potential heirs to Masoud. Despite stepping down from the presidency, Masoud Barzani re-emerged stronger, still serving as KDP leader, and acting as linchpin of political deals within the KDP and beyond. In the words of a KRG official from the KDP: “Everyone thought that Barzani would be weakened after the referendum. Instead, he has emerged stronger than ever. The who’s who of all Kurdistan are coming to the presidential palace, despite the fact that he is no longer president”. A KDP member said:
Decision-making in the KDP is handled by a small circle of experienced party members – not necessarily from the same family – mainly [senior leaders] Masoud Barzani, Fazel Mirani and Nawzat Ali. Yet it’s family ties that allow Masoud to keep intact the party structures and manage internal rivalries.
The PUK, which split from the KDP in 1975 in protest against the KDP’s family/tribal-based politics, has come to operate on the same principle. Since its co-founder Jalal Talabani fell ill in 2013, the party has been riven by competition between his heirs and party leaders who resist being subservient to the Talabani dynasty. A PUK member said: “Those who have been PUK politburo members for 40 years have a hard time accepting that the Talabani family’s newborns will take over the party”. As a result of these divisions, feuds have broken out between the Talabanis and other powerful families and within the Talabani family itself. In the aftermath of the Kurdish regional elections in September 2018, the KDP moved to expand its influence over the PUK by fuelling the inter-family competition that pits the Talabanis against the family of another historical PUK leader, Kosrat Rasoul Ali. The KDP attempt backfired, as the Talabanis managed to restore party unity through an inter-family deal that brought back Barham Salih (a PUK defector previously close to Rasoul) by successfully nominating him as the Kurds’ candidate for the Iraqi presidency.
Even Gorran, a movement that split from the PUK over opposition to the family-based patronage that structures both the PUK and KDP, is undergoing a similar debate, as the two sons of its founder, Nowshirwan Mustafa Amin, who died in 2017, have taken charge of the group’s finances.
B.The Two Main Parties: A Shifting Balance
Both internal and external factors – the KDP’s ambition of hegemony in the Kurdish region, the PUK’s post-Talabani succession crisis and the war against ISIS – have undermined the KDP-PUK power balance, accelerating the Kurdish region’s downward slide. Following the PUK’s disastrous performance in the 2013 regional elections, the KDP formed a government in partnership with Gorran. For the first time, it opted to ally with a group other than the PUK, hoping to extend its clout across the region by widening the split between the PUK and Gorran in Suleimaniya.
This move wound up threatening the region’s stability. It stiffened Gorran’s anti-establishment posture because, despite being in government, the party lacked real power within KRG institutions to counter-balance the KDP, and it pushed the PUK into a closer relationship with Iran. In late 2015, the Kurdish parliament stopped convening following a dispute between the KDP and Gorran (which held the post of parliament speaker) over the extension of Masoud Barzani’s presidency. By the end of 2017, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani was governing without a functioning parliament, without a president and with a cabinet that had lost six ministers (four of Gorran and two of the Islamist Komala party).
In the immediate post-referendum period, the KDP’s ambition to monopolise the region’s leadership and the PUK’s resistance thereto have prevented the two parties from finding a new power balance. Yet the post-referendum crisis created a convergence of interests among leading KDP-PUK figures, encouraging them to cooperate in order to hold on to power. Following the September 2018 regional elections, leadership figures in both parties referred to a “need for unity” through renewed partnership. A KDP member said before the elections:
After the elections, we plan to reinvest in a joint KDP-PUK administration. The KDP has no better alternative than the PUK, and vice versa. I expect that parties such as Gorran that left the government will also be eager to rejoin and obtain cabinet positions.
Yet the clock cannot be turned back that easily. Much has changed since the heyday of the KDP-PUK strategic partnership. The parties have fragmented internally and become more dependent on neighbouring powers, Iran and Turkey in particular, while Talabani’s death removed a pillar of the partnership. Members of both the KDP and PUK may agree that renewed partnership is indispensable if the parties are to continue to dominate Kurdish politics and contain fragmentation, but they are far from agreeing on what type of balance a prospective new arrangement should strike. The KDP’s hardline factions, in particular, have ambitions of their own: for them, a political system dominated by a single party would be more effective and stable than one with several competing political parties and centres of decision-making.
Calls for “unity” cannot obscure the fact that the relationship between the two parties is lopsided. In the current negotiations over the formation of a new regional government, the KDP seems to want to bring in the PUK once more. From the KDP’s strategic viewpoint, this manoeuvre may make sense: the PUK, with military and governance institutions of its own, cannot easily be bypassed. At the same time, it is too politically weak to effectively challenge KDP dominance.
On 4 March, after six months of negotiations over government formation, the KDP and PUK brokered a deal that may help settle the dispute about cabinet positions. It does not, however, constitute a new strategic agreement that would commit the parties to a shared vision of KRG governance and external relations. In this sense, the deal appears to be the outcome of the KDP’s ability to leverage its strategic advantage after the September 2018 elections, and does little to rebuild Kurdish unity or Kurdish strength vis-à-vis Baghdad.
To balance the KDP’s position, hardline figures within the PUK are already banking on the party’s own reinvigorated role in Baghdad – through the newly won presidency of Barham Salih – which has grown in importance now that Iraqi Kurdistan is compelled once more to make amends with the central government. In turn, the KDP, unwilling to depend on the PUK while engaging with Baghdad, is trying to make unilateral deals about outstanding issues with powerful Shiite political forces on which the government depends for its survival. In sum, Iraq’s Kurdish parties are practicing a politics of déjà vu: resorting to tactical alliances with Baghdad to gain advantage in their domestic competition, and Baghdad, despite being fragmented, is thus still keeping the Kurds divided.
C.An Uncertain Future for Pluralist Politics
Rather than sweeping away the figures who plunged Iraqi Kurdistan into existential crisis, the post-referendum instability seems to have strengthened them as they assumed the role of saviours of the Kurdish nation – at the expense of the region’s nominally democratic institutions. Since 2005, Iraqi Kurdistan has staged parliamentary elections on four occasions (in 2005, 2009, 2013 and 2018). It has seen pluralist politics, with opposition parties challenging the KDP-PUK duopoly and sometimes participating in government, a vibrant civil society and street mobilisation against deteriorating services and other manifestations of poor governance. The existential threat posed by the arrival of ISIS in northern Iraq in 2014 and the post-referendum backlash brought whatever democratic process existed to a halt, as party leaders cast themselves as protectors of Kurdistan against external threats, allowing them to more effectively silence dissent.
At the same time, allegations of fraud in the general and regional elections deepened popular distrust of a political process already discredited by chronic high-level corruption. In May 2018, the KDP’s and PUK’s astonishing success in Iraq’s parliamentary elections amid suspicions of fraud left many even more disillusioned about participating in the political process. A 25-year-old Kurd said in the lead-up to the regional elections: “Why vote? In Dohuk, even dead people went to vote [during the general election]. They don’t tell you, ‘there is coffee and tea; you choose’. They just say, ‘there is only coffee’”.
Developments since the elections suggest that the KDP and PUK are making concerted efforts to capture the region’s parliament and independent commissions, voiding their oversight roles and turning them into institutions that formalise decisions taken by party leaders. The region may continue to have a political opposition, but one that is far from being a meaningful check on power and will serve mainly to absorb the street’s anger at the political class. An indication of this trend is that newly elected lawmakers tend to be younger but still are an extension of party/family patronage networks, and thus are unable or unwilling to exercise oversight over those who put them forward as candidates.Some people in Erbil have started using the term “cardboard parliament” to describe the Kurdistan Regional Assembly.
Both parties – the KDP in particular – have focused efforts on obtaining a greater share of the federal budget, which would allow the KRG to dampen discontent by ending austerity measures and resuming public-sector salary payments.
If this trend prevails, elections may cease to be a genuine avenue for political participation and renewal. Results may depend on the parties’ ability to co-opt and repress their own constituencies, mediate internal disputes or manipulate nominally independent electoral bodies to engineer election results.
The KDP’s hardliners seem confident that, after the party did so well in the regional elections, it may count on its leading role in the new cabinet and dominance in parliament to finish crafting the region’s institutional framework on its own terms (for instance, by approving the draft constitution). Its finishing touches may entail weakening the role of oversight institutions and restricting civic freedoms (independent media and political initiatives arising from civil society), which hardliners see as having negatively affected the region’s stability by creating room for an opposition that challenges the leadership and disrupts the two-party system. Both parties – the KDP in particular – have focused efforts on obtaining a greater share of the federal budget, which would allow the KRG to dampen discontent by ending austerity measures and resuming public-sector salary payments. Such steps could consolidate an already widespread tendency across large segments of Iraqi Kurdish society (especially in the large public sector) to accept the status quo, ie, value economic security over democratic freedoms.
The continued role of oversight institutions would be key to enable party figures in the reformist camp to preserve their power in the new government, focus on instituting a new KDP-PUK partnership to advance reforms in the region and shape a common strategy to engage with Baghdad. But if the opposing group that thrives on family-based rule prevails, the region’s downward slide is likely to continue. Iraqi Kurdistan risks losing what it has gradually achieved since 1991: a political system that allows (at least some degree of) genuine political representation, intra-party consensus, relative economic prosperity and social peace.
III.Back to Baghdad
The Kurds have a long history of troubled relations with Iraqi central governments, including recurring cycles of insurgency and counter-insurgency culminating in rampant village destruction and mass killings by the Saddam Hussein regime in the late 1980s. The removal of that regime and the arrival of opposition parties with which the Kurds had made common cause prior to 2003 offered the promise of significant improvement. That promise has been only partly fulfilled. The Kurds have been frustrated by government dysfunction in Baghdad, as well as lack of progress on the issues of greatest importance to them: the status of the disputed territories and oil revenue sharing.
The referendum backlash compelled Kurdish leaders to shift gears in their relations with Baghdad. As long as Erbil was in control of the disputed territories and Kirkuk’s oil, and could count on the support of other members of the anti-ISIS coalition, acting unilaterally seemed viable. That power balance has shifted in Baghdad’s favour; that, plus political changes in Baghdad relatively favourable to the Kurds, paradoxically may offer an opportunity: for the first time since the regime’s fall, Kurdish perspectives may be coming into alignment with those of a central government more willing than its predecessors to discuss a settlement on the disputed territories, Kirkuk in particular. To effectively re-engage with Baghdad, the Kurds will need to overcome their internal rivalries. Unity would also help avoid being drawn into growing U.S.-Iran competition in Iraq.
A.The KRG and the New Baghdad Government
Since late 2017, the two Kurdish parties have started to cautiously re-engage with their erstwhile political partners in Baghdad. This budding rapprochement reverses a decade of growing animosity, culminating in the referendum initiative. From 2007 onward, leaders in Baghdad and Erbil pursued confrontational rhetoric and policies on the disputed territories, oil revenue sharing and oil contracts. The Kurdish parties gradually disengaged from Baghdad and focused on developing their own region with outside help. Where before the parties had dispatched senior officials to serve in the Baghdad government, including Jalal Talabani as president, increasingly they sent lesser figures, who protected the region’s interests not by shaping policy but by treading water.
The dual shocks of losing control over the disputed territories and seeing their share of the federal budget cut convinced Kurdish leaders to reconsider their relations with Baghdad. Even the staunchest advocates of Kurdish independence within the KDP renewed efforts to regain for the KDP high-level positions in Baghdad traditionally assigned to Kurdish candidates (president, deputy chairman of parliament and others). A KDP official described the new approach toward Baghdad:
The idea of independence is still there but now we want to be in Baghdad in full strength. On the negotiating table are the implementation of Article 140 [on the disputed territories], revenue sharing and funding of the Peshmerga [Iraqi Kurdistan’s defence force], among others.
Just as government formation in Baghdad highlighted the KDP ’s renewed interest in investing in the Iraqi capital, the rivalry between the KDP and PUK undermined the Kurds’ ability to regain their political strength, which had delivered critical benefits in the past: a fuller degree of autonomy, a secure 17 per cent of the federal budget and the ability to sign oil contracts independently. In October 2018, the two parties sparred over who they should nominate for the Iraqi presidency, a position that has been reserved for a Kurd since 2005. Though the September 2018 elections placed the KDP in the lead in the Kurdish region, the PUK succeeded in pushing through its own candidate, Barham Salih, over the KDP’s strong opposition. Relations are still bitter. A PUK cadre said:
Since the KDP lost its bid for the presidency, it is making things difficult by showing no cooperation with us in Baghdad. But they cannot achieve anything in Baghdad or in Kirkuk without us, and the opposite is true as well: we cannot achieve anything without them.
Despite its largely ceremonial role, the presidency holds powers that could turn it into a strategic asset in the Kurds’ hands – but only if the KDP and PUK overcome their acrimony.
B.Two Separate Tracks in Engaging with Baghdad
Kurdish leaders have a vested interest in the success of the new government in Baghdad, as it could be willing and able, once fully formed, to deliver a deal on the outstanding issues that divide them. Yet intra-party rivalry is encouraging the KDP to reach unilateral agreements with powerful political-military factions in the capital, rather than negotiating jointly with the PUK to reach a sustainable settlement with the central government.
The first phase of government formation in Baghdad has been instructive. Following the May 2018 elections, both U.S. and Iranian officials pressed Kurdish parties to take a stand in favour of the Shiite bloc each of them supported – respectively, the Fatah bloc and the Nasr bloc. With 46 seats (25 for the KDP and 21 for the PUK), a Kurdish bloc would have been in a strong position to tip the intra-Shiite balance in favour of either of them – a power-broker role the Kurdish parties have played before in Baghdad. This time, their internal divisions prevented the two parties from projecting a unified front and thus weighing in decisively.
Instead, the KDP’s losing the bid for the presidency encouraged KDP hardliners to pursue deals on the disputed territories, the KRG’s budget share and oil sales with the pro-Iranian Fatah bloc as a way to recoup its post-referendum losses.
Such an approach may yield the Kurdistan region quick gains on disputed territories and revenue, but they will be fragile, because they lack government support. Instead of institutionalising Baghdad-Erbil relations by seeking compromise on outstanding issues, these behind-the-scenes deals are dependent on personal relations between KDP figures and Shiite politicians, and thus can be reversed at any time. Moreover, these deals deepen the KDP-PUK divide and weaken the KRG’s ability to engage in negotiations with Baghdad.
One indication that this game is afoot is the Kurdish parties’ failure to agree on a candidate for justice minister, a post they received as part of government formation based on their electoral strength. The KDP approach also undermines Baghdad as an effective counterpart in negotiations with Erbil by strengthening political factions on which the government is already dependent for its survival. If a weak central government can deliver short-term benefits to the Kurds, it also has diminished ability to deliver a sustainable settlement on disputed territories and oil revenues.
C.Returning Politics to a Virtuous Circle
The referendum fallout holds opportunities for conflict resolution that should be seized, as well as risks of new flare-ups that should be averted. International players, the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) in particular, should capitalise on Kurdish re-engagement with Baghdad by assigning senior officials to the task of mediating a deal on the disputed territories. Arguably, the odds have never been more favourable. A successful policy approach would make negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad a priority for the next two years. It also would take into account the inter-dependency between the KDP-PUK balance in Erbil and Kurdish re-engagement with Baghdad.
If the U.S. were to ratchet down its escalatory rhetoric against Iran, throw its weight behind renewed KDP-PUK strategic partnership and encourage a Kurdish rapprochement with Baghdad, its leverage in Iraq’s political process might increase through its alliance with the Kurds. Under these conditions, the chances appear good that KDP and PUK reformists can prevail to shape a workable partnership, rather than fall victim to the divide-and-rule politics in the capital, and facilitate a sustainable solution for the disputed territories.
Success in Baghdad would benefit from stability in Erbil. Strengthening intra-party consensus and internal party cohesion would be helpful in this regard and should be encouraged as long as it is aimed at re-establishing oversight mechanisms over the region’s executive branch and supporting cooperation between reformist figures, of whatever party, committed to reaching a negotiated settlement with Baghdad. A UNAMI-led negotiation process between Erbil and Baghdad could help achieve a settlement that would be more sustainable than ad hoc political deals based on mere trading of favours between individual party figures.
In the absence of accountability for the KRG or the Kurdish parties, foreign economic and military support for the Kurdish region is likely to strengthen party figures with no commitment to reform who are wont to suppress opposition with a heavy hand. The KRG’s international partners, who have already spent heavily on the military and security partnership, should therefore also invest in restoring mechanisms of oversight in the region’s political system (parliament, judiciary, independent commissions) and in strengthening civil society, which could keep reformist figures powerful enough to continue the reform process inside Kurdistan and revive intra-party cooperation. A newfound strategic partnership in the Kurdish region is essential for the two parties to effectively re-engage with Baghdad. Reformist figures in Kurdish politics tend to be those who have the best relations with the central government and also are most committed to finding new working relationships between the KDP and PUK inside the region.
The future course of Iraqi Kurdistan will depend to a large degree on the outcome of an intra-leadership competition that, given current dynamics, is likely to empower hardline figures over reformists. This outcome could trigger a vicious cycle, which would further shrink space for political representation in the Kurdish region and undermine efforts to find a sustainable solution to outstanding issues between Erbil and Baghdad. It could also be a factor that contributes to political fragmentation that would turn Iraq ever more into a staging ground for the growing U.S.-Iran regional rivalry.
The current U.S. administration’s escalatory rhetoric vis-à-vis Iran inevitably is contributing to this vicious cycle. Maximum pressure on Iran is likely to end up polarising Iraq’s political scene into rival blocs, paralysing the Baghdad government and pushing KDP and PUK hardliners to reach unilateral agreements on disputed territories and revenue-sharing, while shrinking the space for negotiating a durable solution to these festering issues.
If family loyalty and patronage continue to be the governing principles of Kurdish politics, reformist figures may have no option but to start playing by the same rules, seeking and doling out patronage themselves, lest they be cast aside. With hardliners empowered, it would be difficult for the KDP and PUK to find a workable strategic partnership. Instead, the parties’ leaders may try to use their dependence on regional powers to prevail in struggles with domestic rivals inside and outside the party. Kurds have too often paid the price of being caught up in regional and international rivalries because of intra-party divisions. Invariably, the outcome of such entanglements has been further internal fragmentation and vulnerability. This time, it would jeopardise the achievements of a generation in establishing an autonomous region with a degree of genuine political representation, relative economic prosperity and social peace.