Right now, it may seem as though the Kurdish referendum on independence is the biggest news in the semi-autonomous, northern region. But in fact, there are also other moves afoot that could change the political landscape in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Kurdish politicians have announced that they will hold elections for the region on November 1 this year. This would see the election of the regional parliament and leaders.
Earlier in September one of the region’s most prominent figures, Barham Salih, announced that he was forming a new political alliance. He registered the list, called the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, and then on October 2, he announced in a video that the alliance would compete in the upcoming elections.
Salih is one of Iraq's most senior, most experienced politicians and has held many of the top jobs in the country, including deputy prime minister of Iraq, prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan and national minister of planning. Up until recently he was a leading member of one of Iraqi Kurdistan's two major political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, although he resigned that post when he registered his new political party.
Salih appears to be confident that there is hardly anyone left in the PUK-controlled parts of Iraqi Kurdistan who can challenge him. He was very close to the recently deceased Jalal Talabani, a founding member of the PUK. Talabani’s widow, Hero Ibrahim Ahmad, is considered by many to be the defacto leader of the PUK. Nawshirwan Mustafa, the leader of the oppositional Change movement, which was formed by breakaways from the PUK, also died earlier this year. So there appears to be a lack of visible, viable political leadership in the PUK-controlled areas.
In his video, Salih announced that his was a coalition in which he hoped to gather all the other parties and political groups outside of the PUK and Kurdistan’s other major party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP.
This includes the various Islamic parties in Iraqi Kurdistan and potentially also the more controversial Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which is based in Turkey but has some activities in the Kurdish region. It also includes the region’s major opposition party, the Change movement.
This desire to form an opposition movement of sorts immediately puts him at loggerheads with the two establishment parties.
“We want to bring political figures and parties together under one umbrella,” Sulaiman Abdullah Yunis, formerly of the PUK and now spokesperson for Salih’s new alliance, confirmed. “After leaving the PUK, Salih has planned for two circumstances. The first is how to deal with elections if they are held as scheduled. The second is what to do if the elections are not held.”
The main condition for the success of Salih's new initiative will be if he can reach out to people in Erbil and Dohuk, and not just in Sulaymaniyah.
If the latter happens – as is quite possible given the problems around the referendum and the internal political dissent in Iraqi Kurdistan right now – the new alliance will continue its work, Yunis told NIQASH.
Direct talks with other parties have already begun, sources say. Mohammed Rauf and Aram Qadir, senior members of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, have already agreed to work with Salih.
“We have started our talks and we will continue until we form a large coalition,” Rauf told NIQASH. “Our aims are political and economic and we are working towards reform and social justice.”
“There is an intention to form a coalition,” adds Change movement member, Shamal Abdulwafa, who is acting as a negotiator between Salih and his party. “Talks are ongoing. We have made some positive steps and there is a good understanding.”
Salih has also made moves to gain the support of the region’s civil society organisations. “We have held a number of meetings to try and reach a consensus about supporting these lists and parties,” confirms Khanum Raheem Lateef, a women’s rights campaigner in Sulaymaniyah.
If Salih does what he set out to do, it could change the political map of Iraqi Kurdistan. Up until now, the region has been dominated by the two main parties, the KDP and the PUK. Salih hopes eventually to achieve a majority in the Iraqi Kurdish parliament by uniting all the smaller parties in one alliance.
Alliance spokesperson Yunis says there is no hostility toward any other, specific party. But, he added, there is a desire to change politics in the region, to achieve “good governance” and to change the country’s leadership regularly through elections.
“This step is the right one if we want to change the region’s political map,” agrees Abubakir Haldani, an MP for the Kurdistan Islamic Union. “Our party has discussed this topic and we will continue to discuss it. However, it is all going to depend on whether elections are held or not.”
“We haven’t closed the door to any party that wants to form a coalition, either before or after elections,” says Adnan Othman, a senior member of the Change movement. “We want to work to form this alliance so we can remove the KDP from power.”
Obviously, comments are not all positive. Salih’s critics say he spent too long within the PUK and is actually part of the problem; they would not trust him to start anything new. Other sceptics suggest that he is not a bold enough figure to make a dent in Kurdish politics where, for example, machismo and nationalistic posturing gains much support. They say that as a politician, Salih works through compromise and negotiation and that won’t cut it.
“Barham has good experience outside Iraqi Kurdistan and we can see he’s been very successful, especially when it comes to management,” suggests Latif Fateh Faraj, a former member of the Iraqi Kurdish military who now works as a journalist and political analyst. “But the main condition for the success of his new initiative will be if he can reach out to people in Erbil and Dohuk, and not just in Sulaymaniyah.”
Salih is based in Sulaymaniyah and this is territory controlled by the PUK, his former party. Erbil and Dohuk are controlled by the KDP, his potential political rivals.
Currently Salih and members of the Change movement are trying to come up with a potential candidate for the Iraqi Kurdish presidency. Nobody will deny or confirm whether Salih himself would try for the job, currently held by a rambunctious Massoud Barzani.
Some of Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest internal problems stem from the fact that Barzani has remained president of the region since 2005 - illegally, his critics say.
According to Zmanko Jalal, an official supervising electoral procedure for the Change movement, they have come to a decision and chosen a strong candidate, with the ability to compete with other Kurdish politicians.
If Salih’s coalition is successful it will be a first for Iraqi Kurdistan. There have been other, smaller coalitions in the Kurdish parliament in the past but they were never very successful. And as yet, nobody even knows whether all the other parties have agreed to accompany Salih on his mission.
Still, some Kurds see it as an exciting and positive development on the local political scene. “The Kurdish region cannot get out of its current political stagnation without shaking up the political map,” says Kamal Rauf, a local journalist. “This situation can’t be changed by one party. We need a coalition!”