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The Governor’s New Clothes:
Iraqi Kurdistan’s Historic Power Sharing Deal – Or Is It?

Histyar Qader
In a sign of their cosy new alliance, the most powerful political party in Sulaymaniyah handed over the governor’s job to their former rivals. But can this really work?
30.08.2016  |  Sulaymaniyah
Members of Sulaymaniyah's provincial government vote for a change of leader. (photo: موقع هافال ابو بكر على الفيسبوك)
Members of Sulaymaniyah's provincial government vote for a change of leader. (photo: موقع هافال ابو بكر على الفيسبوك)

Last Thursday, an apparently momentous event occurred in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan: Political power changed hands and it seemed to go fairly smoothly.

After 24 years of being almost the sole political party in power in one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s provinces, Sulaymaniyah, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, handed over the governorship of the province to their former rival-turned-ally, the Change movement.

Senior Change movement member, Haval Abubaker, is the province’s new governor, the first individual to hold the post who is not a member of the PUK since 1992. The process was initiated by voting on the provincial council and was described in glowing terms by Yusuf Mohammed, another senior member of the Change movement and the banned Speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament: “Today for the first time in Sulaymaniyah power has been exchanged peacefully,” his statement said.

But it wasn’t always this way.

During provincial elections in late April 2013, the PUK ran a smear campaign against Abubaker, basically saying that he was a supporter of Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party. Of course both Abubaker and his party strenuously denied this.

After the election results, which saw the Change movement gain a larger number of seats than expected, the PUK agreed to share the job of governor with the Change movement, promising to swap roles so that their candidate got two years and then the Change movement candidate got two years. 

Few locals believed this would ever happen. After all, dominant parties in Iraqi Kurdistan are not known for peaceably giving up power, abandoning the privilege that comes with it. However, in this case the PUK has stuck to the bargain.

While the terms of the agreement haven’t been worked out completely, Hoshyar Ismail, a member of the PUK on the Sulaymaniyah provincial council, says that his party is committed to the deal.

“We will monitor Abubaker’s work in the same way we observed the work of the former governor,” Ismail told NIQASH.

Naturally the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, was not as impressed by the achievement that the PUK and the Change movement were boasting about; the KDP is stronger in other parts of Iraqi Kurdistan and is often criticised by the Change movement.

“These events don’t really reflect the handover of power,” a senior member of the KDP in Sulaymaniyah, Dana Shahid Jaza, told NIQASH. “It’s just a straight swap.”

While some may be celebrating there will also be some legal hurdles for the new governor to clear. His appointment requires several more approvals to become official: From the cabinet and the Ministry of the Interior but perhaps most problematic, from the office of the President of Iraqi Kurdistan. At the moment that job is contested and held by Massoud Barzani, leader of the KDP.

The Change movement has already said they do not believe that Barzani can be the legitimate president of the region anymore and so they say they won’t wait for what they see as his bogus approval of Abubaker.

“Iraqi Kurdistan exists in a legal vacuum at the moment,” says Anwar Tahir, a member of the Change movement and deputy head of the provincial council. “That’s why we don’t need a decree from the President and why Abubaker can assume his duties as soon as the cabinet issues its approval.”

And when it comes to the reality of the power that Abubaker can wield, there will also be handicaps. The PUK holds most of the most important jobs in Sulaymaniyah province and has long been in charge here. And it is clear to most local analysts that staff and other politicians tend to follow the lead of the party that appointed them.

Tahir insists the situation in Sulaymaniyah is different. “There will be no new obstacles for the new governor,” he argues. “This region is going through a different kind of political process. The local government here works on a broad basis and is run by a team.”

Still, it seems certain that it won’t be easy for Abubaker, especially given ongoing tensions between the KDP and the Change movement. 

“There are no guarantees that the Cabinet is going to agree that Haval Abubaker can assume his duties anytime soon,” local legal analyst, Ahmed Warti, told NIQASH. “The law here is controlled by politics.” And, as he points out the prime minister of the region, Nechirvan Barzani, is a member of the KDP.

It will also be a test of the new alliance between the PUK and the Change movement, suggests Ribawar Karim Mahmoud, a professor of political science at the University of Sulaymaniyah. “His success will depend on the success of the agreement between the PUK and the Change movement,” Karim told NIQASH. “If there are problems in that agreement it’s going to be difficult for him to exercise any power.”

Additionally, some members of the PUK are opposed to the agreement, as are some members of the Change movement. 

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