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Game Changer:
Iraqi Kurdistan’s Most Powerful Political Cousins Set To Share Power At The Top

Honar Hama Rasheed
Earlier this month Iraqi Kurdistan’s most popular party made an unexpected choice for regional prime minister. Some fear the choice may increase rivalry between two cousins who must now run the region in unison.
13.12.2018  |  Sulaymaniyah
It's all relative: Nechirvan Barzani (left) and Masrour Barzani.
It's all relative: Nechirvan Barzani (left) and Masrour Barzani.

Locals and politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan had been waiting for the prime minister of the semi-autonomous northern region, Nechirvan Barzani, to initiate the formation of the new regional government here. Elections were held in October and Barzani’s party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, won a majority of the votes and 45 seats, which means they have the right to begin this process.

For the past few years, it has been standard practice for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, to have their leadership council nominate Barzani, the nephew of the party’s long-time leader Massoud Barzani, to initiate the process of government formation. However this year, there was something of a surprise on December 3. A Barzani was nominated but it was not, as expected, Nechirvan. Instead it was Masrour Barzani, Nechirvan’s cousin and the son of Massoud.

Nechirvan has been far more visible in Iraqi Kurdish government – he’s been deputy prime minister or prime minister and held senior positions in the Iraqi Kurdish government since 1999. Most recently he’s been the prime minister and the party has now decided he will become the region’s president, replacing Massoud, who stepped back in October 2017 after the ill-fated regional referendum on independence.

This way, neither of the cousins can be considered a “loser”.

Masrour, on the other hand, has been far more behind the scenes and this is the first time he has taken power in a much more public way. He is better known as a senior figure in the KDP’s intelligence services and the head of the regional Security Council.

The announcement about the two new jobs for Masrour and Nechirvan was made at the same time, leading some observers to speculate that the party leadership did things this way in order to minimize any competition between the two cousins. There have been rumours about rivalry between them ever since patriarchal figure, Massoud Barzani, stepped back. This way, neither of the cousins can be considered a “loser”, they suggest.

Although some locals may have been surprised by the move, members of the KDP themselves told NIQASH it was no big deal. “The KDP wants to bring new people into the cabinet in order to bring about change and to fulfil promises it made during the elections,” explains Farsat Sofi, an MP for the KDP. “The KDP always makes changes in positions and this is within that framework.” The decision, Sofi added, is just a “natural” thing for the party to do.

The next step for Iraqi Kurdish politics is for government formation to begin, although obviously the KDP cannot do this alone. How do the other parties in the region – and perhaps most significantly, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, with 21 seats – feel about this?



Not everyone is a fan of Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani.

The 'strong man' of Iraqi Kurdish politics, since retired.

The PUK appears to be satisfied with the job distribution between Nechirvan and Masrour. “The KDP has the freedom to choose Masrour Barzani to head the government, and we welcome him and the party’s decision,” says senior PUK politician and spokesperson, Saadi Ahmad Bira. It’s a good move toward the formation of the government, Bira noted, and the PUK hopes that further progress will continue.

That there is conflict between Masrour and Nechirvan can be seen in a number of ways, suggests local journalist and political commentator Kamal Rauf. It can be seen in the two separate (and large) media channels that the cousins own – Nechirvan owns the region’s biggest media organisation Rudaw and Masrour has Kurdistan24  - and from some of the other institutions the pair are close to, and fund, such as charitable foundations and educational institutes. It is also clear in the way in which Masrour has disagreed with things the prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan has said or done over the past few years. Many locals believe that the two cousins will struggle for power inside Iraqi Kurdistan and that their new positions give them more opportunity to prove who is the successor to Massoud’s decades-long dominance of Kurdish politics.

Both politicians have great power, inside and outside the party, although Masrour may well have the upper hand when it comes to military power. Masrour has power through the intelligence services, the counter-terrorism forces and a number of the ordinary military in the region. Nechirvan has military power mostly through his brother, Rawan Idris Barzani, a senior military commander.

There is overlap in the executive powers of the Iraqi Kurdish president and the Iraqi Kurdish prime minister.

Rauf believes that it is the patriarch himself, Massoud Barzani, who has been able to prevent the cousins’ rivalry from becoming too public. “However the coming days, when the two are in charge, are going to make this conflict more obvious and it is hard to know what the solution will be,” Rauf cautions. 

There is still some overlap in the executive powers that an Iraqi Kurdish president and an Iraqi Kurdish prime minister have. 

Still, it seems unlikely that the family rivalry will go much further than coded messages. As a political party, the KDP still appears to be the more important framework, in which the cousins will work than any personal rivalry between them. Indeed this role change may well be the beginning of a more public power sharing between them, where the cousins put the interests of the party above their own, despite the lack of a single “strong man” figure.

This was the role that Massoud Barzani played. And as the KDP’s Sofi also suggests, “nobody can replace Massoud Barzani and his charismatic personality in this role, in the Kurdish region. In fact, he is doing all this so that Masrour and Nechirvan will play these new roles,” he argues.

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