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Bye Bye Democracy:
Biggest Iraqi Kurdish Political Parties Will Reunite, Share Absolute Power Again

Honar Hama Rasheed
After political unrest in Iraqi Kurdistan, an old power-sharing agreement looks likely to be resurrected. But will the reunion solve the region's problems or just make things worse?
Together again? A street vendor in Iraqi Kurdistan holds pictures of the leaders of the PUK and KDP in 2014. (photo: سفين حميد)
Together again? A street vendor in Iraqi Kurdistan holds pictures of the leaders of the PUK and KDP in 2014. (photo: سفين حميد)

At the end of last month, two of the biggest political parties in the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan held a meeting. The meeting was convened by Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, a leading member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and Mullah Bakhtiar, a senior member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. At a press conference following the meeting the politicians announced that the meeting was the beginning of a new relationship between their two parties.

Which sounds very cosy. And considering that in the not-so-distant past, these two parties were actually at war, it also sounds like a positive development. However almost all of the other notable political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan, which has its own borders, military and Parliament and often acts independently of Baghdad, are extremely concerned.

They believe that any new pact between the PUK and the KDP will, once again, sideline political opposition within the region and change the political balance of power in a non-democratic way.

The winner in this political conflict is likely to be the PUK. And Massoud Barzani, who will remain as President. 

Up until relatively recently the KDP and the PUK were the two largest parties in the region, splitting resources and terrain in a power-sharing agreement they had come up with in 2005 after ending their fighting – many locals refer to it as their “civil war”. However after the 2013 general elections, the PUK was no longer one of those two largest parties in the region, at least not in terms of voters. They had been overtaken by the Change movement, a breakaway party from the PUK, which campaigned on an anti-corruption platform.

It looked like it might be very difficult to form a government because the KDP and the Change movement – the former opposition - were on opposite sides on so many issues. At this stage the PUK, which had links with the Change movement, broke out of the power sharing agreement it had for so many years with the KDP and formed a government with the Change movement and several smaller Islamic political parties in the Kurdish region, that also constitute an opposition there. At the same time the PUK continued to insist that, although it may not have as many seats in Parliament as the Change movement, it was still a very powerful body because of its ongoing control of military forces, land and resources.

At this stage, the KDP also decided to sign up to become part of the Iraqi Kurdish government. Essentially this meant that nearly all of the political parties in the region that had been voted for were in power together. Such a broad based, coalition government was a major change for the Kurdish region – and saw both the KDP and the PUK lose the absolute authority they had had in the past, in the two halves of the Kurdish region they basically ruled.

However this delicate balance did not last very long – and now, with the announcement of renewed cooperation between the KDP and the PUK, it seems the region may even be going back to the former status quo.

The PUK has a confidential plan to 'resolve' political problems, but details have leaked to the media.

Since the beginning of 2015, the Change movement and the KDP had been fighting about the issue of who should be Iraqi Kurdistan's President. Currently it is Massoud Barzani, the leader of the KDP, but many locals say his mandate ended some time ago and that he should give up the job. In October – about six weeks after Barzani's Presidency expired – this argument climaxed in early October with violence on the streets and the KDP's expulsion of the Change movement from the broad-based government. Cabinet ministers belonging to the Change movement were sacked and the Speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament, also a member of the Change movement, was not allowed into Parliament.

The winner in all this is likely to be the PUK. The Change movement is apparently trying to re-establish links with the PUK and the KDP is clearly also wooing their old power sharing partner. And the PUK apparently has a plan to “resolve” Iraqi Kurdistan's problems.

“We have discussed a plan with a number of political parties and some of them have responded positively to our ideas, especially the KDP,” Saadi Ahmad Bira, a senior member in the PUK and one of its strategists, told NIQASH.

The plan is supposed to be confidential but there have been some leaks to local media. These leaks suggest that the main point of the plan is a change to the way the presidency of Iraqi Kurdistan is structured. This is something the Change movement is opposed to but which the KDP favours. The leaked details suggest the KDP and PUK will once again share power and that Massoud Barzani will be able to remain as the region's President.

The PUK and the KDP are taking major steps to find practical solutions for the political problems in Iraqi Kurdistan, Dilshad Shahab, a senior member of the KDP who attended the recent bilateral meeting, told NIQASH. The KDP have definitely decided that they won't allow the Change movement to furnish the region's Speaker of Parliament, he said.

“The KDP won't negotiate with the Change movement the way we used to,” Shahab insisted. “And we want to sign a new agreement with the PUK that will allows us to administrate the region's business and politics.”

Ahmad Bira of the PUK didn't disagree with Shahab's statements. In fact, he suggests that the PUK is working together with the KDP to try and resurrect aspects of the old power sharing agreement. Part of this agreement stated that the PUK and the KDP would share the most senior positions in the region as well as the positions occupied by Iraqi Kurdish politicians in Baghdad.

Naturally none of this news is welcomed by the Change movement, who fear they will be totally left out of regional politics, despite being the second-most popular political party there.

“If this happens, the Change movement and any other political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan will be left out of the circle of power,” Abubakr Karwani, a senior member of one of the smaller Islamic parties, the Islamic Union, told NIQASH.

Karwani and other politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan fear that, rather than resolving issues in the region, any new power sharing agreement between the KDP and the PUK will destabilise things even further – especially, they say, when the region's people realise what is going on and take to the streets to protest.

“What the KDP is really doing is trying to create new political problems in Kurdistan and in doing so, downplay the issue of the presidency,” Shorsh Haji, a leading member of the Change movement, told NIQASH. “The KDP is basically leading a coup against the Kurdish Parliament, a legitimate body in this region. Any other party that helps them achieve that aim is only taking part in this coup.”

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