Filling Talabani's Shoes

Jalal Talabani has been one of the most prominent Kurdish leaders since the 1950s. Neither he nor any other person, however, would have ever imagined that he would eventually become president of Iraq. Reaching such a position was beyond all expectations and predictions. But the impossible became a reality and the position, despite its symbolic nature, has become one of the major achievements of the Kurdish struggle in the first years of this century.

The deterioration of his health, however, and his travel to the US for medical treatment, has led many people to speculate over who will take his place when the time comes. The consequences of his absence have become a major concern for Iraqis, Kurds, and particularly his own party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

It is not wrong to ask what future Talabani has planned for Iraq, for Kurdistan and for his own party after his departure. Some media sources have published news on “Talabani’s will” but these reports have been quickly negated. Facts do, however, reveal that Talabani has not yet made party-related decisions such as choosing a successor. This decision will, in large part, determine the basis of future Kurdish decisions related to the political process.

On the local front, the Middle East’s political history has repeatedly shown that the absence of the founding head, the leader, leads to cracks and the PUK’s experience is unlikely to be different. In other words, the absence of Talabani, without a clear designation of the period that follows, will lead to political polarization with dire consequences. Any crisis created as a result of his absence will create confusion inside the Kurdish front. Moreover, such a crisis will enhance the position of the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) as a political option for the Kurds in Iraq and will give the party the power to dominate the Iraqi-Kurdish agenda. Thus, the two-sided Iraqi-Kurdish decision making process will fall under the purview of just one movement impacting on democratic developments in the Kurdish region.

Regionally, Jalal Talabani is considered, par excellence, the engineer of Kurdish-Arab-Iranian relations. He has established strong relations with Turkey, Syria and Iran, based on non-interference in the affairs of these countries (which largely means avoiding touching on Kurdish issues).

On the Turkish front, Talabani has successfully opposed the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) since 1999. Seeking to dismantle the PKK from within, Talabani has encouraged internal rifts and won the support of a large number of its field leaders such as the group around Othman Ocalan (brother of PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan). There have also, in recent years, been armed clashes between the KPU and PKK. These factors have given the PUK a favorable position within Turkish politics compared to that of the KDP.

To the West, Talabani does not hide his close ties with the Syrian regime and has not broached the Syrian Kurds’ lack of rights. To the East, Talabani holds notable influence over Iranian-Kurdish opposition parties.

Thus Talabani’s eventual absence may well provoke confusion for neighboring countries negatively impacting on the Kurdish issue across the region.

Today, speculation on Talabani's successor as party leader and, potentially, as president of Iraq has focused on four names. Firstly, Barham Saleh, the Iraqi deputy prime minister, who enjoys good Arab and international relations, especially with the US because he was the PUK’s representative in Washington for more than 15 years. He holds a doctorate degree and is fluent in several languages. Secondly, Fuad Ma’soum, head of the Kurdistan Alliance bloc. Thirdly, Kosrat Rasoul Ali, vice president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region. He however, suffers many health problems resulting from an assassination attempt. Finally, some people have suggested the return of Talabani's former deputy Noshirwan Mustafa, who held a leading position in the PUK for nearly three decades until he resigned following a conflict between him and Talabani. Mustafa currently heads an independent media institution based in Sulaimaniyah.

But, there is also one last – and more unpredictable - option that increasingly seems to be gaining traction. Talabani might follow the established Middle Eastern method in dealing with such a crisis by handing his position over to his son, Qubad Talabani. The appointment of Qubad as representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government in the US is one sign indicating the adoption of such an option, preparing, as it does, Qubad for more important positions. It is also not an exaggeration to suggest that Qubad’s marriage to the daughter of a Jewish-American billionaire with close ties to the American Jewish lobby is a step forward towards nominating him to lead the PUK and become president of Iraq ahead of Barham Saleh. If these predictions prove true, Jalal would slip into what he long criticized: the tribal and inheritance culture at work in the region.

It is most likely that the absence of Talabani will create a divisive crisis between the different wings of the PUK and its different leaders. Appointing Qubad as successor may ease these potential tensions but will have other negative consequences. The best possible solution is the resignation of Jalal Talabani; he should resign without suggesting the name of Qubad or any other successor to allow his party members the freedom to select their new leader; a party leader capable of revitalizing the PUK.