Kurds know only too well that they have little chance of taking the role of President. That will fall to a member of one of Allawi’s, Maliki’s or al-Hakim’s blocs. Instead, Kurdish eyes are focused on the positions of Vice President, parliamentary speaker and ministerial positions in the new cabinet.
Fifty new seats were contested in these elections, though Kurdish parties won one seat fewer than in 2005 – 57 seats, compared with 58. This year, too, those seats were split between different lists, with the growth of the Change Movement (Goran) taking away votes form the united Kurdish Alliance, made up of the Kurdish Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The alliance won ten fewer seats this year, with Goran winning eight in their first election.
The strength and importance of the Kurds in the previous government was such that they were awarded many key government positions, including President, Vice President, Deputy Prime Minister and Deputy Speaker of Parliament, as well as Foreign Minister and other ministries. That has definitely declined as a new session looms. This time, they can hope to retain Vice President, a largely ceremonial role. Current President, Jalal Talabani is the only nominee. The position has lost any former sheen it had as it is the deputy to the presidential post, which has had all its sharp teeth removed.
The President’s role is far less powerful than in the previous government with the dissolution of the Presidential Council and the loss of Presidential veto, something that Talabani exercised to good effect in 2008, when he refused to endorse the Governorate Councils Election Law in the late 2008 and he returned it to parliament. Despite that, question marks remain over the role’s true significance.
“The only major position left in Iraq is the prime minister and it is impossible for that to be given to Kurds. The position of president is only honorary and the speaker of parliament has hardly any authority,” said Mohammed Toufiq Rahim, an official spokesperson for Goran.
The Kurdish opposition, particularly the Goran, believes that pressurising the incoming government over its program regarding the rights of the Kurdish people and getting guarantees to settle the existing problems with Baghdad are much more important than negotiating over prestige but toothless government positions.
“The options for Kurds are not exciting and are limited to the positions of president and speaker of parliament,” said Farid Asa Sard, a leading figure in the PUK and head of the Kurdish Strategic Research Center, in response to the comments from Goran. He continued:
“Despite the limited powers enjoyed by the President and that he will stripped of the right to veto, the State Political Council gives him many powers, in addition to the prestige attached to the President as a person and to his party and to the people he belongs to.”
The positions taken up in Baghdad by Kurds have remained the province of politicians from the two main Kurdish parties, operating in an alliance, since 2005, but opposition parties argue against this.
Despite that some describe this position as honorary and ceremonial with hardly any significance; those close to the main Kurdish parties insist that this position should remain in the hands of Kurds.
“All Kurdish opposition parties must be included in discussions about and their members considered for the key positions that will help to achieve gains for the Kurds. The issue must not be monopolized by the two main parites,” said Abel Sattar Majid from the Kurdish Islamic list.
The Kurdish opposition criticises the acceptance by the Kurdish Alliance of the Foreign Ministry and they believe that Kurds should demand the Ministry of Oil, Ministry of Finance or the Interior Ministry since the Foreign Ministry failed to bring any benefits to Kurdistan and had virtually no role in resolving the outstanding differences between Erbil and Baghdad.
“Over the past years the Foreign Ministry was merely morale booster for Kurds given that fact that it deals with issues outside Iraq while the outstanding problems are in there,” said independent Kurdish politician, Dr. Mahmoud Othman. “We have to try to get the Finance Ministry since we have many problems in regard to sharing the budget with Baghdad.”
Othman underlines that Kurds have been calling to increase the Region's budget (17% of state budget) while the central government is trying to cut it. Related to this are problems over the status of Peshmergha units. The Kurds demand that financing come from Baghdad, while Baghdad demands the money should come from the Regional Government’s own pockets.
Further controversies exist over the oil contracts signed individually by Kurdistan with foreign oil companies (agreements not recognised by Baghdad) and the implementation of article 140 of the Iraqi constitution and the deputed areas, especially Kirkuk, in which the Kurds demand to be annexed to Kurdistan Region.
With the powers of the role of President on the wane, it is definitely time for a change in approach from the Kurds, who, in spite of their decreased weight in parliament remain a vital coalition partner to any new government. Avoiding supposedly prestigious, toothless ceremonial posts in favour of controlling ministries with the greatest relationship to Kurdish affairs should be their strategy in the negotiations for the establishment of the new cabinet.