On the morning of Friday, May 19, news broke of the death of one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s leading politicians, Nawshirwan Mustafa, the leader of the oppositional Change movement. Mustafa was 73 and had been ill for some time – yet the news still came as a shock to his supporters.
His followers gathered in front of the Change movement’s headquarters in the Zargata Hill neighbourhood in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. In front of the same building where Mustafa had founded the Change movement eight years ago, as an offshoot of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, party, to campaign on an anti-corruption platform, they stood and chanted “he will not die” repeatedly.
Mustafa’s funeral was attended by members of most of the local political parties, even those with whom the Change movement is far from friendly. Some even offered eulogies.
If the KDP thinks it can simply dominate the Change movement, they are delusional.
“It is not possible to replace someone like Nawshirwan Mustafa,” Salahuddin Bahauddin, the head of Kurdistan Islamic Union, said - and he didn’t appear worried that anyone might disapprove of his praise for the more secular politician. Even the younger Iraqi cleric, Ammar al-Hakim, who heads the Shiite Muslim national alliance in Baghdad’s parliament, repeated the slogans chanted by mourners, and in Kurdish.
There is no doubt that Mustafa was a charismatic man. But maybe some of his supporters, who were flagellating themselves in grief, may have lamenting their own futures as much as the politician who passed away.
With Mustafa’s death, and the ongoing illness of Jalal Talabani, the leader of the PUK, the two main parties in this part of the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, have now both lost their figureheads.
The region, which has its own military and parliament and acts something like a state within a state, is split between areas that traditionally fall under each party’s control, dubbed the “green” and “yellow” zones - after the respective coloured flags of the PUK and the region’s other main party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. Each party informally maintains command over the armed forces and the political systems in each zone. Local administrations in Erbil and Dohuk are controlled by the KDP and the Sulaymaniyah and Halabja areas are mostly administered by the PUK. The Change movement was, to all intents and purposes, anchored in the PUK zone of influence.
The PUK and the Change movement will carry on, of course, but without their charismatic leaders. In terms of the Change movement, there will be a reshuffling of various important relationships, both within the party and externally, in terms of relationships with the PUK and its ongoing conflicts with the KDP.
Indeed, in terms of the Change movement’s relationship with the PUK, around a year ago Mustafa had formulated an agreement that would have seen the two parties unite in parliament. The agreement has had its difficulties since then and it is clear that Mustafa’s death will change that understanding yet again.
“Changes in political equations are possible,” says Kawa Mohammed, a senior member of the Change movement. “The vacuum he left cannot be filled by anyone else as he had a special vision.”
Still, Mohammed continued, “every member of the PUK should respect the history of the party and try to implement this agreement. Some of the PUK members were already trying to block this agreement and they are bound to try even harder now.”
“Mustafa’s death will certainly have an impact on the relations between the PUK and the Change movement,” Harem Kamal Agha, a senior politician in the PUK party, confirmed. “The future of their relationship is going to be determined by decisions taken at the Change movement’s next conference, during which they will elect a new coordinator. But I believe the history of a close partnership between our two parties will make things easier.”
The other big problem that will confront a Mustafa-less change movement is the party’s relationship with the KDP. The two parties have definitely not been on friendly terms for some time now. In fact, the Change movement’s protest about the head of the KDP, Massoud Barzani, holding onto the regional presidency longer than they believe is legally acceptable, has seen Iraqi Kurdish politics grind to a virtual halt.
While laying flowers on Mustafa’s grave on Monday this week, the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan, Nechirvan Barzani, a leading member of the KDP, said that politicians should make use of the sad event to “solve political problems”.
“The Change movement is going to be weakened by the death of Nawshirwan Mustafa because members of the party often don’t acknowledge one another’s efforts,” Ali Awni, a senior member of the KDP, told NIQASH. “Some of them might return to the PUK,” he suggested; the Change movement was a breakaway from the PUK.
“At the same time interactions with the KDP will also be more difficult. We have the same problem with the PUK. It was much easier to deal with one leader and to come to an agreement with one person, than it is to debate with several different people,” Awni noted.
There are several possible permutations of relationships between these three major parties in Iraqi Kurdistan now, suggests Amin Faraj Sharif, a professor of political science at Salahaddin University in Erbil.
“The first scenario is optimistic and suggests that, now that historic enmities between Mustafa and the Barzani family have literally been laid to rest, there may be a thaw in the relationship between the KDP and the Change movement,” he says.
On the other hand, if Mustafa’s successor is equally opposed to the Barzanis and the KDP party, and continues to toe the contrarian party line as many Change movement supporters might want, then that relationship could also deteriorate further.
“And if the KDP thinks it can simply dominate the Change movement, they are delusional,” insists Change movement member Mohammed.
Sharif believes that if the Change movement can bring itself closer to the PUK, and possibly work on the agreement first proposed by Mustafa, that will also help the party tackle its issues with the KDP: The two would be stronger together.
On the other hand, Sharif points out, the Change movement’s manifesto is very different from the PUK’s these days and there may be no family reunion, even though the leader who first broke away from the PUK is no longer with the Kurdish people.