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Out With The Islamists
Iraqi Kurdistan Heading For First Secular Government In A Decade

Histyar Qader
In 2019, it seems Iraqi Kurdistan’s government will not have any Islamist parties involved. Their exclusion, and a wholly secular leadership, presents both a problem and an opportunity.
30.12.2018  |  Erbil

In Iraqi Kurdistan, every iteration of the local government here has always included one of the local Islamist parties. But that could be about to change, as the new government slowly forms in the semi-autonomous northern region.

The political party that won the most seats here in last year’s election, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, appears to have decided that it does not want to repeat the experience of a so-called broad-based government. That is one where all of the parties are represented in the government in order to prevent tensions between them; it is also sometimes called a national unity government.

Currently the KDP are holding talks with two other major parties in the Iraqi Kurdish region - the Change movement and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK - to form a government. They seem to be ignoring the Islamic parties, which tend to be the fourth and smallest force in local politics here.

One or other of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Islamic parties have been a part of every Iraqi Kurdish government since 2005.

There are a  number of conditions that the KDP wants the Islamic parties to fulfil before it allows them into government. The most important one is that the Islamic parties support the KDP decisively and that they not behave as though they have one foot in the government and the other foot in the opposition. In return, the Islamic parties want a number of positions for its members and changes to administrative methods.

“We will not repeat the experience of the eighth cabinet here,” confirmed Fadhil Basharati, a senior member of the KDP. In that last broad-based government, various parties ended up being expelled at different times: First the Change movement and then later the Islamic parties. The KDP accused both of these groups of still acting like they were in opposition even though they were allegedly in power.

“Political parties will participate in this government according to their size and popularity,” Basharati explained. “The Islamic parties got fewer votes and the number of seats they have has decreased so it’s natural that they’re not part of the government.”

The KDP has not yet officially informed the Islamic parties that they won’t be part of the next Iraqi Kurdish government. A senior member of the group of Islamic parties confirmed this to NIQASH. “We see what their intentions are but they have yet to tell us,” the source noted.

One or other of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Islamic parties – often referred to as the Islamic group and consisting of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan - have been a part of every Iraqi Kurdish government since 2005. Although the motivation for excluding the Islamic parties from the next Iraqi Kurdish government is clearly political – the KDP does not like the oppositional positions that the Islamic parties, who often spoke out about the KDP’s tactics, take – it would also mean that the next government will be completely secular.

“A government without the Islamists will lead to an imbalance,” argues Bilal Suleiman, a leading member of the Islamic Group of Kurdistan. Even though, he adds, the previous governments were actually also secular in all but name because the Islamic parties inside the broad-based governments didn’t really have a lot of power.

In fact, the Islamic parties may well have more of a voice if they remain in opposition – because for the first time, none of the three parties will be involved in the government. They would all be in opposition so they could ostensibly lean on an older societal division: The religious society versus the secular. This kind of thing makes the larger and outwardly more secular parties nervous because, despite some appearances, Iraqi Kurdish culture remains heavily influenced by religious mores.  

Still, it is hard to know whether the Islamic parties would be able to unite enough to make a difference. The three parties have held a number of meetings over the past few years in an attempt to form a more united Islamic front in the region but mostly these attempts have come to nothing.

“If the Islamic parties go into opposition, that will be a good opportunity to revive those plans,” Qassim Kalali, a senior member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, told NIQASH.

That seems unlikely though, says Mohammad Baziani, the director of the Al Huda Centre for Strategic Studies, because there is an “intellectual conflict between the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan, over who is supposed to be in charge.”

“The problem is not whether these parties are in power or not in power,”  Baziani continued. “The problem is that they cannot come together and they see everything in a partisan way. They need rapprochement and without it, they won’t succeed, whether inside or outside the government.”