Friday, September 2, 2016

Warning Update: Dismissal of Finance Minister Possible as Kurdistan Alliance Fractures

By Emily Anagnostos with Tori Keller

Key Takeaway: The Iraqi Council of Representatives (CoR) will likely dismiss Kurdish Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari if a no-confidence vote occurs on September 6. New interpretations of the Iraqi Constitution require only a simple majority to remove ministers, making his ouster more likely. Zebari, a well-liked and effective minister, is being targeted to undermine the leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), Masoud Barzani, who has centralized power within the Kurdish Regional Government at the expense of rival parties - the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran. Kurdish political parties lack the discipline to vote as a single voting bloc because of infighting, which the Reform Front, the shadow political party led by former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has exacerbated. Should the Kurdish Alliance in fact collapse, allowing Zebari’s removal, the Kurds will lose their important influence over Arab Iraq. For this reason, the PUK leaders are attempting to instill party discipline and compel members to support Zebari, but they are unlikely to succeed if the vote proceeds on September 6 as they need more time to organize.

The Situation

Kurdish Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari will likely face a vote of no-confidence.
  • The Reform Front, an unofficial opposition party in the CoR and support base for former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has driven the campaign to dismiss Zebari. The Reform Front similarly did so to dismiss Sunni Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi on August 25.
  • The Reform Front is targeting ministers whose dismissal will have the simultaneous effect of undermining PM Abadi’s key alliances and of collapsing major political blocs in the CoR that rival the Reform Front.
  • A prominent ruling State of Law Alliance (SLA) member and a member of the Reform Front announced that the CoR would hold a no-confidence vote against Zebari on September 6. The CoR has not officially confirmed that the vote will occur, however. 

If the no confidence vote occurs on September 6, Zebari is unlikely to survive the vote because the Kurdistan Alliance has fractured.
  • Intra-Kurdish tensions in the KRG have spilled over into national politics.
  • Kurdish opposition politicians may try to punish Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) by voting against Zebari, a party member.
  • Some Kurdish politicians in the PUK and Gorran will not adhere to their party leaders’ demands to support Zebari for the benefit of the greater Kurdistan Alliance.
  • The PUK is working to consolidate fractious intra-party differences and has called for a “decision center” to issue all orders of the party on September 1. However, the multiple PUK officials have resisted this attempt as well, revealing an internal PUK split that decreases the chance of Zebari’s survival.

A holiday recess may give the PUK and Gorran leaders the time they need to organize their members to preserve Zebari.
  • Kurdish opposition leadership recognizes that the Kurds will lose their influence in the Iraqi Government if the Kurdistan Alliance fractures over Zebari’s dismissal.
  • The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the second largest Kurdish party in the CoR, could ensure Zebari’s survival. However, the PUK currently cannot enforce party discipline to vote in favor of Zebari.
  • The PUK leaders are not likely capable of turning the party members around in time for a September 6 vote. However, the PUK could substantially improve party discipline if it delays the vote until after recess.


The Kurdistan Alliance is susceptible to fracture due to intra-Kurdish tensions playing out in both the Kurdistan Regional and Iraq national governments.
  • The Kurdistan Alliance has been the framework under which all Kurdish parties in the CoR have formed a consensus agenda. The parties are also the five largest parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
  • A long-standing rivalry exists between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by KRG President Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Jalal Talabani.
  • A political crisis in the KRG between the KDP and Gorran, a prominent offshoot of the PUK, in October 2015 further polarized the positions of the KDP and PUK.
  • The KDP and PUK differed over relations with Baghdad during a political boycott in May 2016. The Kurdistan Alliance began to fracture when the PUK and Gorran sought to end the boycott for financial concessions, deviating from the KDP’s intent to use the boycott a springboard for an independence referendum.

Former PM Nouri al-Maliki continues to hit on the fault lines between the Kurdish opposition parties and the KDP in order to benefit his own support base.
  • Maliki has courted Kurdish opposition blocs, including the PUK and Gorran, as possible allies to expand his base of support in the CoR at a time when those parties are at odds with the KDP.
  • Maliki has repeatedly praised the political alliance between the PUK and Gorran, who merged on May 18, while the KDP heavily criticized the alliance saying it will “deepen the internal problems” in the KRG.
  • Maliki visited the PUK and Gorran in Suleimaniyah on July 18, where he met with senior PUK leaders and Gorran leaders, reportedly asking the PUK and Gorran to join the State of Law Alliance (SLA).
  • A senior PUK delegation met with Maliki in Baghdad on August 23 to discuss issues between the KRG and the federal government.

The Kurdistan Alliance faces dual pressure from some members’ desire to undermine the KDP’s dominance and the leaders’ fear of Maliki’s return to power.
  • The no-confidence vote is an opportunity for Kurdish opposition parties to manifest their animosity towards the KDP by ousting Zebari. The KDP reportedly requested that the all parties withdraw from the CoR on August 27 in protest of the questioning of Zebari on August 25, but the parties did not comply. The Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) stated that “most Kurdish parties” support Zebari’s dismissal, stating that the KDP was now “alone.”
  • However, several ranking members of the PUK have advocated to follow party line and support Zebari, likely in an effort to preclude taking action that could benefit Maliki’s return to the premiership. Other PUK members have ignored the PUK’s party line in favor of Gorran’s anti-KDP stance.


The dismissal of Defense Minister Khalid al-Obeidi on August 25 lowered the threshold of support needed to dismiss a minister.
  • The CoR dismissed Obeidi on a simple majority vote, despite the Constitution stipulating an absolute majority, which is a 165 CoR members. Conversely, a simple majority is the majority of those attending the session after its reached quorum, also 165 people. This makes the lowest simple majority possible 83 members if base quorum is reached.
  • Pro-Maliki supporters are consistently within reach of that minimum, as they demonstrated when the CoR dismissed Obeidi. A fractured Kurdistan Alliance, conversely, is unlikely to garner additional support for Zebari.


Zebari’s dismissal could compromise the economic stability of Iraq.
  • Zebari is an effective and internationally well-liked finance minister who has secured financial benefits that support the economic health of both the Iraqi Government and the KRG.
  • He has been instrumental in successfully negotiating the $5.3 billion standby loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Discussions are ongoing for fulfilling the conditions of the loan and unlocking the potential for greater loan amounts.
  • Zebari likely played a critical role in ensuring a new oil agreement between the KRG and Iraqi Government on August 30 over oil production in Kirkuk Province.
  • It is unclear if these efforts would survive if Zebari is removed from office.

The U.S. campaign for Mosul could suffer if the U.S.’s primarily anti-ISIS partners, the KDP and Baghdad, no longer have an effective relationship.
  • The bulk of anti-ISIS operations in northern Iraq have occurred in KDP-governed terrain and alongside KDP-led Peshmerga forces. KDP Peshmerga would be the primary Peshmerga force to participate in Mosul operations.
  • The breakdown of relations between the KDP and the Iraqi Government may complicate the current plan and timeline for Mosul if the KDP rejects the oversight of the federal government, or if the U.S. ability to work with the KDP is hampered by poor Baghdad-Arbil relations.
  • The Peshmerga will likely refuse the Iraqi Government’s orders to withdraw from recaptured and primarily Sunni Arab territory in anti-ISIS operations. Kurdish expansion in northern Iraq could drive the Internally Displaced Refugee (IDP) crisis and exacerbate Sunni Arab-Kurdish tensions, undermining Sunni reconciliation efforts.

Zebari’s dismissal would allow the Reform Front to undercut its rivals in the pan-Shi’a National Alliance.
  • Maliki likely has targeted Zebari in order to undermine his political rival, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), which has opposed the Reform Front’s agenda.
  • The call for no-confidence in Zebari also targets ISCI’s role as the primary mediator between the Shi’a and Kurdish parties and may reduce ISCI’s relevance and ability to contest Maliki in the government.
  • The Reform Front will continue to try to oust key ministers in order to undermine Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s premiership. A Reform Front member stated on August 31 that it will pursue the removal of Minister of Foreign Affairs Ibrahim al-Jaafari (National Reform Trend) and Health Minister Adila Hammoud (Dawa in Iraq) next.

The Reform Front may ultimately target Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi with a no-confidence vote.
  • The rump Parliament, from which the Reform Front grew, had called for a no-confidence vote against the PM. 
  • The Reform Front and Maliki have established their capacity to oust highly-respected and prominent ministers. They have also cemented the precedent of a simple majority to dismiss a minister.
  • The dismissal of Obeidi and Zebari would eliminate two allies important to PM Abadi. The Reform Front may continue to pick off ministers around PM Abadi, or its successful dismissal of Zebari may prompt a call for the dismissal of PM Abadi.
  • Without the fundamental support of the Kurdish and Sunni alliances, PM Abadi may have little support base to ensure he survives the vote.

The KDP might leave the Iraqi Government and accelerate efforts towards Kurdish independence should the CoR oust Zebari.
  • The KDP would likely see participation in Baghdad as futile and fellow Kurdish parties as unacceptable partners.
  • KRG President and KDP leader Masoud Barzani might use the dissatisfaction with the Iraqi Government as a springboard for holding an independence referendum.
  • KRG President and KDP leader Masoud Barzani continues his rhetoric calling for Kurdish independence. He called in June for Kurdish parties to convene and decide the “next steps,” though no meeting appears to have occurred.
  • Barzani has set the U.S. 2016 presidential elections as a deadline for holding a referendum.
  • The U.S. is attempting to prevent the partition of the Iraqi state. U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called President Barzani on August 31 and confirmed U.S. support for a “unified, federal and democratic Iraq.”
  • An independent Iraqi Kurdistan without the PUK-governed territories – primarily the oil-rich Kirkuk Province – is not financially viable even in improved economic circumstances, a fact that may dampen a risky move toward independence.

The fracturing of the Kurdistan Alliance would likely deprive all Kurdish parties of their ability to influence the Iraqi Government in Baghdad and extract concessions that benefit the KRG, ending an era of Iraqi politics. In the most dangerous situation, the current Kurdish political fracture can break the unitary Iraqi State.