|Barzani, the president of Iraq's Kurdish region, is seen as a pragmatic leader [EPA|
On 3 July Kurdish President Masoud Barazani hit the headlines by calling for a referendum on Kurdish independence. Unsurprisingly Kurdish political parties rallied behind this call, displaying a united front in the face of the evolving national crisis. Yet this show of unity belies a deeper unease that has blighted the Kurdish political scene for some time. This report will examine the underlying tensions in the Kurdish political arena, arguing that they will need to be tackled if the region is to have any chance of becoming a successful independent state.
On 3 July the Kurdish President Massoud Barazani hit the headlines with his call for a referendum on Kurdish independence. Although Iraq’s Kurds have long talked of breaking free of the centre, the idea of an independent Kurdish state was always somewhat a distant aspiration, a dream that would be realised when the time was right. But worsening relations with Baghdad over recent months have fuelled talk of going it alone. More importantly, the ISIS-led rebellion in Iraq and Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s refusal to step down brought the situation to a head, prompting Barazani to strike out and make the call for independence.
The extent to which Barazani’s calls for a referendum reflect a genuine attempt to push for an independent Kurdish state or whether they are more a means of pressurising Baghdad into yielding on key Kurdish demands - largely ignored since the power sharing Erbil Agreement of 2010 - is not yet clear. With the central government weaker than ever before, raising the banner of independence may be Barazani’s way of trying to force Al-Maliki out and of repositioning the Kurds in the national arena.
Indeed, while independence is a serious aspiration, Barazani knows that the path to a Kurdish state will not be easy. There will be deep hostility from other parts of Iraq with most Shi’ites and Sunnis strongly opposed to breaking the country up. The US has also made it abundantly clear that it is not in favour of such a solution. Neighbouring countries with Kurdish minority populations, including Iran and Turkey, are equally opposed. Despite Justice and Development party member, Hüseyin Çelik, implying in comments to the Financial Times in June that Ankara would not object to an independent Kurdish state, this is clearly not the position held more widely by the Turkish state. On 1 July, the Turkish deputy prime minister Bülent Ar?nç spelled out to the media, “Turkey does not want to see Iraq break apart”(1) Even Çelik was forced to backtrack on his comments, telling the Hürriyet daily that Turkey supports the territorial integrity of Iraq.(2)
Without these countries on board Erbil will struggle to achieve independence. Moreover, there are some Kurds who may not appreciate pushing for independence at this time either. According to a poll conducted in 2012, only 57% of Kurds in the region agreed that the time was appropriate to declare Kurdish independence. Certainly things have moved on since then. Relations with Baghdad have deteriorated significantly since 2012, mainly over Erbil’s efforts to export oil independently. The federal government’s retaliation of withholding the Kurdish share of the national budget over several months in 2014 created serious resentments in the region. Thus there is more of an appetite for independence now than in 2012.
However, there is still some unease within the Kurdish camp. While the main ruling party, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), is clear in its calls for the referendum, its counterpart in the region, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is less forthcoming. That does not mean that the PUK is not serious about a Kurdish state, but that it is somewhat more cautious about the timing of it. As deputy president of the Kurdish region and senior PUK member, Kosrat Rasul Ali, stated in July, “All the Kurdish people support it, but the leadership must consider whether the time is appropriate or not… If the political climate is not ripe, perhaps we will have to wait years. Otherwise it will be a misadventure."
Although Kosrat Rasul Ali later clarified these comments to stress that he was not against the principle of a Kurdish state, it is clear that the PUK is more circumspect about the issue. This reflects the fact that the PUK has tended to be more actively involved in national politics than the KDP whose primary concerns have remained more directly focused on the local Kurdish arena.
Despite these differences, however, the Kurds have pulled together in the face of the bigger national crisis and are showing a united front. So much so that they finally succeeded in forming a new government in June following some nine months of protracted negotiations.
Yet the formation of this government, as well as this show of unity, belies a deeper unease that has been brewing in Kurdish politics for some time. In fact the crisis in Iraq has unfolded at a time when tensions and factionalism in the Kurdish political scene have been greater than at any point since the toppling of the Ba’athist regime. This article will examine these tensions and will argue that while Kurdish politics might have been overtaken by recent national events, the underlying issues will need to be tackled in order for the region to have any chance of becoming a successful independent state.
Old Tensions, New Equation
Relations between the region’s two main ruling parties - the KDP (which controls Erbil and Dohuk) and the PUK (which controls Suleimania) have oscillated over the years. Despite descending to a particularly low point in the late 1990s when they became locked in a civil war, since the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime they have tried with some success to work together. They established a democratic political system, tried to unify their two administrations and struck a Strategic Agreement in 2007 to divide power.
While these efforts to pull together have not been unproblematic and while they have continued to maintain largely separate administrations with distinctly separate security apparatuses, since 2003 the region has effectively been governed by these two parties in what has been seen as a bastion of stability in a sea of turmoil.
However, this somewhat cosy alliance was shattered by the parliamentary elections of September 2013 when opposition party, Goran, stormed into second place behind the KDP, knocking the PUK into third place. Goran’s success was not especially surprising. The party, which was formed in 2007 as an off-shoot of the PUK, was becoming an increasingly potent force in Kurdish political affairs. It seemed to offer a new kind of politics that was less reliant on historical experience and liberation and that spoke the language of reform. Goran took the opportunity to challenge the government at every turn, focusing in particular on issues of corruption and party interference. Thus although Goran struggled to make serious inroads into KDP territory that has always been more tribal and traditional, it was fast becoming a serious contender in the more progressive PUK areas.
Goran’s position was also enhanced by the PUK being sent into disarray following the illness of party leader, Jalal Talabani. Talabani was struck down by a stroke in December 2012 and the party has struggled to recover ever since. His absence has resulted in the differences between the various party factions coming to the fore, with tensions so acute that the party has not been able to appoint even a temporary successor. This crisis clearly played to Goran’s favour.
Politics Turned Upside Down
However, the true extent of Goran’s appeal only became fully apparent in the September elections. Although the KDP, which is still the dominant player in the region, took 38 seats in the 111 seat parliament, Goran won 24 seats, leaving the PUK in third place with just 19 seats. The Islamist opposition parties also did unprecedentedly well taking a combined 17 seats between them, leaving them just two seats behind the PUK.(3)
These election results were clearly a disaster for the PUK but they also turned the region’s politics on its head, setting off a protracted struggle to form a new government. No longer could the two ruling parties simply divide up the posts between them according to the strategic alliance. The KDP made it clear from the outset that it was seeking a national unity government to include all forces. Having experienced Goran’s repeated attempts to demand reforms, such as returning the constitution to the parliament to water down the president’s powers, the KDP clearly wanted to bring all opposition parties on board.
Achieving such a government, however, proved difficult, primarily because of competition between the PUK and Goran. Goran believed that the election results meant it should step directly into the PUK’s shoes and be awarded posts commensurate with being the region’s second power. The PUK, meanwhile, argued that it was still the historical second power and the most important player in the Kurdish areas of the disputed territories and thus should be compensated accordingly.
This power struggle put the KDP in an almost impossible position, making it choose between its long time strategic partner and the party with the greater share of the vote. The antagonism at this time was such that the three parties contested the Iraqi national elections in April 2014 as separate entities, abandoning the Kurdistani Alliance under which the KDP and the PUK had contested previous national polls. However, after weeks of stalemate the KDP ultimately sided with Goran. On 17 April, Goran and the KDP announced that they had reached an agreement on the new cabinet, although stated that would leave certain posts open for the PUK.
The PUK was furious at the move, objecting in particular to the fact that Goran had been given the Peshmerga ministry. The PUK had made it clear it did not want Goran to have any of the security portfolios. Its peshmerga leaders reportedly started moving their heavy weaponry out of the Peshmerga Ministry while some PUK supporters allegedly fired at a number of KDP offices in Suleimania.(4) The PUK therefore refused to accept this fait accompli by the KDP and Goran.
It was a surprise therefore when on 18 June - in a move almost completely overshadowed by the ISIS-led crisis - Erbil announced that its government was finally formed. As the main power in the region the KDP held onto many of the key files, including the Interior Ministry and the Natural Resources Ministry. As well as the Peshmerga Ministry Goran also took other important portfolios including Trade and Industry and Finance and Economy. As for the PUK, it finally settled for the deputy prime minister’s post, as well as a number of lesser ministries including Housing and Reconstruction; Health; Martyrs and Anfal Affairs; and Culture and Youth. It is clear, therefore, that out of the three parties, the PUK definitely came off worst.
It is not clear what persuaded the PUK to concede and join the government. It may have been related to Jalal Talabani’s son, Qubad, being offered the Deputy Prime Minister post. Given that this post has traditionally carried limited power, it seems reasonable to assume that the position was beefed up to persuade the PUK to come on board. However, the PUK’s willingness to play ball may also have been because the party could see that things were running ahead without it and thus had no choice but to come to the table, particularly given the unfolding crisis in Iraq. Indeed, the deteriorating situation in the country may well have been the final trigger to bring these Kurdish parties together.
For the time being, therefore, Kurdish politics seems to have been swallowed by the bigger issues of independence and resolving the national crisis. This means that pressing local concerns such as reform, amending the constitution and dealing with corruption – all key demands of Goran and the Islamic parties - are likely to be put on hold. But while these thorny domestic issues may have been temporarily overshadowed by Kurdish nationalism, they will not go away. Thus while the Iraqi crisis could herald a new period of Kurdish unity that might ultimately lead to independence, unless these issues are tackled the region will struggle to transform itself into a modern democratic entity.
Copyright © 2014 Al Jazeera Center for Studies, All rights reserved.
* Alison Pargeter is a Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. She is a specialist in North Africa and political Islamist movements and author of several books including ‘Libya: The Rise and Fall of Gaddafi (2012).
1) Turkey does not want to see Iraq break apart. Today’s Zaman. 1 July 2014.
3) The Kurdistan Islamic Union won 10 seats; the Kurdish Al-Jama’a Al-Islamiya won six; and the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan won 1.
4) Iraq Focus. May 2014. Menas Associates. See www.menas.co.uk