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Abadi or Maliki?
Iraqi Kurdish Politicians Won’t Place Bets Until After Elections

Histyar Qader
Who would be the best prime minister to advance Kurdish interests in Iraq? This is the question Iraq’s Kurdish politicians are asking themselves, as elections approach and backroom deals are being done.
15.02.2018  |  Erbil
New objectives: Kurdish demonstrators protest the fact that salaries have not been paid for months. (photo: حمه سور )
New objectives: Kurdish demonstrators protest the fact that salaries have not been paid for months. (photo: حمه سور )

In past elections, Iraq’s Kurdish parties have been able to play kingmaker. The vote has been so close between Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim parties that the Kurdish basically got to decide who won, and who got the job of prime minister.

This year things are looking a little different. Given the history between Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region and the two men who may well get to be prime minister, it is going to be a much more difficult decision.

You should expect anything and everything in politics. There is no permanent friend or enemy. And anyway, we do not know if another party altogether might win the majority.

Right now, it looks like the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has a good chance of keeping the job. However his rival, Nouri al-Maliki, is also jockeying to take back the position he once held. Both men are Shiite Muslim politicians from the same party and are also bitter rivals, whose competition represents a wider split between Iraq’s Shiite Muslim-dominated political establishment. Both politicians and their supporters are working, in public and behind closed doors, to persuade the Kurds their cause will  get better support.

The Kurdish politicians spent eight years under al-Maliki and the last four years, they have been dealing with a government headed by al-Abadi. Although the Kurds supported the Shiite parties after every election since 2005, both prime ministers have left them with bad memories.

One of the most powerful parties in the semi-autonomous northern region, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, plans to wait until after the elections to decide who it might ally itself with, says Rasul Razgaey, a KDP spokesperson. Neither possibility looks particularly appetizing right now, Razgaey agreed.

“Al-Maliki stopped paying the salaries of Kurdish staff and al-Abadi attacked the region,” Razgaey told NIQASH; he is referring to budget quarrels between Iraqi Kurdish politicians during al-Maliki’s administration and more recently, the fact that, last October the Iraqi military, under instructions from al-Abadi, reclaimed territory that the Kurdish had previously controlled. “You should expect anything and everything in politics,” Razgaey continued. “There is no permanent friend or enemy. And anyway, we do not know if another party altogether might win the majority.”

The scrapping over who is a better friend to Iraq’s Kurds is highlighted by recent events. During an interview with the Iraqi Kurdish media house, Rudaw, al-Maliki said he believed it was wrong not to pay the salaries of Iraqi Kurdish civil servants – that is despite the fact that it was his government that originally made the decision. After the interview al-Abadi made new promises to finally send the money north and he also agreed to meet further Kurdish delegations to discuss the matter.

“We should wait for the winning list and we should make sure that it will fulfil any promises it makes,” suggests Arez Abdullah, a senior member of Iraqi Kurdistan’s other powerful party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, who also heads the PUK’s bloc in parliament in Baghdad. “Otherwise we should search for alternatives,” he suggests.



The best choice? Current Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, at work.


“The Kurds should not limit their options to al-Abadi or al-Maliki,” Abdullah adds. “Those two are not necessarily going to win the majority. To be honest, regarding Kurdish affairs, the experience with al-Abadi has been the worst.”

Besides changes in their attitudes toward their traditional allies in Baghdad, Kurdish objectives are also different this year. In 2005, Iraqi Kurdish MPs vetoed the nomination of a proposed Iraqi prime minister, even though he was chosen by their Shiite Muslim counterparts. This had to do with the future of the so called disputed territories – these are areas that the Iraqi Kurdish say belong to their region but which Baghdad says are part of Iraq proper.  

But this year, the disputed territories are not as much of a priority, especially given that, since October, a lot of those areas have been controlled by Iraqi forces. Instead the Kurdish region’s share of the federal budget will be a major issue, as will salaries for Kurdish military and civil servants, paid by the federal government. Whoever can deliver that will be the hero of the moment.

Another of Iraqi Kurdistan’s most popular parties, the mostly-oppositional Change movement, says they will be looking more closely at platforms and promises than the actual personalities. “Although of course previous experiences with these people, and how they dealt with the Kurdish region, will have an impact on any proposed alliances and the person we choose to support,” says Mohammed Ali, a senior member of the Change movement.

Another issue that will likely impact on any Iraqi Kurdish decisions after the elections is the fact that the Kurdish politicians are far from united at the moment.

“If current problems inside the region go on like this, they will probably  carry on after the elections too – and that split may also influence the choice of the new Iraqi prime minister,” Omar Mohammed, a senior member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, told NIQASH.

“If there are different Kurdish lists [in the election], then each of us will come to a different agreement in Baghdad and each party will go in its own direction,” confirms the PUK’s Abdullah.

Things have changed a lot and the Kurdish politicians now want quick gains “to please the street,” says Watheq al-Hashimi, the director of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies based in Baghdad. That’s why there are also secret alliances being formed, or at the very least, being negotiated, behind closed doors, al-Hashimi says.

“The Kurdish parties will wait until after the elections to make any announcements though,” he predicts. Additionally one should not forget the international influence on Iraq’s Kurds. The KDP is close to Turkey and the PUK is closer to Iran, al-Hashimi says, and those countries will both want to have a say on the issue of Iraq’s next prime minister too.

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