They were happy together once: Ministers of Iraqi Kurdistan's disabled Parliament.
In the aftermath of past elections, Iraqi’s Kurdish politicians would often go to parliament in Baghdad well-armed to negotiate: They could threaten to secede from Iraq, they could talk about their military power and the fact that they controlled various disputed areas in northern Iraq and they could withhold the oil that came from their region.
But this year, a month before Iraq holds federal elections in May, the Kurds are looking empty handed.
There is also a lot of anger and resentment among people here about Kurdish politicians, who they see as having been unable or unwilling to protect them.
“The Kurds have lost their previous status in Baghdad and they will not be able to play a decisive role when it comes to choosing the next prime minister,” says Amin Bakr, an MP for the oppositional Iraqi Kurdish party, the Change movement, who is based in Baghdad. “However making major decisions without the Kurds still won’t be easy. When the Kurds unite they are strong. But if they go to Baghdad in their current divided state, it will be like when the prime minister was selected and the federal budget approved - without the Kurds even being there.” Bakr is referring to the ongoing impact of the ill-fated referendum on Kurdish secession from Iraq, which has seen accusations flying and various Kurdish politicians blaming one another for the damage it caused.
For example, before the referendum the Kurdish military controlled many of the areas around their semi-autonomous, northern region. After the Iraqi government pushed back, the Kurdish military vacated those areas and this includes a number of oil fields located around the city of Kirkuk, from which they had been profiting.
The fallout from this has seen the various Kurdish political parties at odds, blaming one another and apparently incapable of working together – even in Baghdad, where they have usually presented a united front to the rest of Iraq.
There is also another issue of concern. The number of seats that Iraqi Kurdish politicians have managed to gain in parliament in Baghdad has been decreasing for the last few elections. In 2005, Iraqi Kurdish MPs had 77 out of 275 seats and in 2010, that number fell to 57. This was despite the fact the number of seats in parliament actually increased to 325. During the 2014 elections, the Kurds managed to get 62 seats – but the proportions were not in their favour then either because once again, the number of seats in parliament increased, this time to 328.
Changes in the electoral system were partially to blame for the decline in Kurdish percentages, explains Sardar Abdul Karim, a former member of Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission, or IHEC, which oversees elections. And, he adds, “elections in the disputed areas in Kirkuk, Diyala, Salahaddin and Ninawa are expected to see a further drop in Kurdish seats in parliament, after these elections”.
A Kurdish man walks past election posters.
These are territories the Iraqi Kurdish military used to control before the independence refrendum. There are several reasons for this. Among them is the fact that one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, has decided to boycott elections in the Kirkuk area. They argue that it is being “occupied” by the Iraqi army and they refuse to campaign there. Another reason is because the voices of Kurdish voters in disputed territories, who disagree with the mainstream Kurdish parties, in these areas has been able to be louder, now that the Iraqi military is in charge of security there. Additionally a lot of Kurds have left both the disputed areas and also the country, since the last elections. They have departed because of the security crisis caused by the extremist Islamic State group.
For example, in Sinjar – the area in Ninawa where the Islamic State, or IS, group committed some of their worst atrocities –the mayor, Iraqi Kurdish politician Mahma Khalil, believes the number of Kurdish seats will halve, from eight to four.
What sort of rapprochement there is between the Sunnis and the Shiites, will also decide what kind of role the Kurds play.
“The number of votes for Kurdish politicians will decrease because many people have left the area and even left the country,” Khalil says. “And there is also a lot of anger and resentment among people here about Kurdish politicians, who they see as having been unable or unwilling to protect them [from the IS group].”
Despite these gloomy predictions, Iraqi Kurdish politicians believe that not all hope is lost.
“If the Kurds can unite and form an alliance after the elections, they could still have a key role in deciding on the formation of the next government and in choosing the next prime minister,” suggests Arafat Karam, the head of the KDP’s bloc in Baghdad. “If they remain divided though, they will be weak and won’t be able to play any role.”
At the same time Karam concedes that the Kurdish alliance is far weaker than it has been in the past.
“There is no doubt that the Iraqi government cannot be formed without Kurdish input,” says Ahmed al-Haj Rashid, a senior member of the Kurdish Islamic bloc in Baghdad, optimistically.
One reason that the Kurds might be left out is if a majority government is formed in Baghdad, he admits, that sees certain parties from other sectors deciding to govern together. When the government is formed using Iraq’s unofficial but impactful quota system, the Kurds get to play a more important role. But if the Sunni Muslim and Shiite Muslim politicians in Baghdad agree to vote together, then the Kurds could be side-lined. This happened recently when parliament voted on the draft 2018 federal budget.
“What sort of rapprochement there is between the Sunnis and the Shiites, will also decide what kind of role the Kurds play,” agrees Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish commentator who has been a member of parliament several times. “If the two sectors come to an agreement, then the Kurds won’t have much say in deciding on the prime minister.”
“There is a trend to marginalize the Kurds in Iraqi politics,” agrees Areez Abdullah, who heads the bloc of another leading Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, in Baghdad. “But the government cannot be formed without a Kurdish voice. That would mean the political process has failed in Iraq.”
As yet, it is obviously unclear what will happen during and after elections. It is true that the Iraqi Kurdish politicians will not be able to impose their will as they have done before though, when, for example, they were seen as kingmakers after past elections. However it is also true that there is likely to be a power struggle of sorts for the top jobs in the country and that the current prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, will potentially not want to do without the estimated 50 or so seats that Iraq’s Kurdish MPs are still likely to get. At least, that’s what the Kurds are hoping.