Thursday, January 25, 2018

Iraqi Kurdish Political Fractures Weigh on Looming Elections

By Omer Kassim

Key Takeaway: Iraq’s Kurdish political parties have fractured rapidly since September 2017, when the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) unilaterally held an independence referendum contravening ultimatums from Baghdad and Tehran. The KRG lost control of key terrain to Iraqi Security Forces and Iranian proxies in October 2017, forcing longtime KRG President Masoud Barzani, the architect of the referendum, to resign from his office. Further fractures in mid-January 2018 have set conditions for an even more contentious Kurdish legislative election in March 2018 that will determine Barzani’s successor and shape the KRG’s political structure. These fractures also reduce the ability of Kurdish parties to negotiate effectively with Baghdad over key issues for the region’s future, such as its share of Iraq’s national budget. The Kurdish electoral splits may endure long enough to preclude the Kurds from functioning as an effective, cohesive power bloc in the upcoming Iraqi national elections.

Secretary General of the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) Salahadin Bahadin on January 16 withdrew his party from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)—the third party to quit the coalition in just over a month. The KRG failed to meet the KIU’s demands to pay the delayed salaries of employees, agree to the demands of Kurdish protesters in Sulaymaniyah, and release those arrested during the protests. Bahadin stated the KIU’s withdrawal does not signal support for or opposition to any side. The KIU, despite maintaining relatively friendly ties to both the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), is likely positioning itself closer to the opposition camp led by Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) ahead of the Kurdish legislative elections. Gorran and the KIG withdrew from the KRG on December 20 following the Kurdish protests in Sulaymaniyah. 

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) faces public backlash for the failed independence referendum held on September 25, the ensuing economic crisis instituted by Baghdad, and the subsequent withdrawal of Peshmerga forces from nearly all territories disputed by the KRG and Baghdad. The KRG cannot pay its employees' salaries because Baghdad imposed economic pressure after the referendum and took control of vital oil resources on which the KRG had depended for its revenue. The regional government also faces criticism for achieving only limited success in critical negotiations with Baghdad regarding control over the region’s border crossings, airspace, budget, and oil revenues. Kurdish political opposition parties Gorran and the KIG in December pressured KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani to ask the Kurdish parliament to set a date for early regional elections by March 17—a goal that may not be reached for technical and political reasons. 

Successful KDP and PUK negotiations with Baghdad, although unlikely, would improve the parties’ chances to win the Kurdish elections. To do so, the KRG’s leadership seeks to maintain the legitimacy of the government while accelerating negotiations to reach the most favorable deal possible with Baghdad ahead of Iraqi legislative elections, scheduled for May 12. Barzani, the Deputy President of the KDP, is trying to shore up PUK support for the KRG, visiting the PUK’s stronghold of Sulaymaniyah on January 9 and emphasizing the necessity to “deepen and sustain” KDP-PUK ties. The failure or delay of a KRG-Baghdad deal before federal elections would allow the opposition bloc to emphasize the failures of the current KRG leadership. 

The intra-KRG divisions are likely to extend to the federal legislative elections—especially in disputed territories such as the oil-rich and multi-ethnic Kirkuk province and ethnically mixed areas within Diyala and Salah al-Din provinces. Barzani on January 7 called for a united Kurdish approach to the federal elections, but many Kurdish parties have signaled that they will run separately. Gorran, the KIG, and the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ)–led by former KRG Prime Minister Barham Saleh–are poised to run independently of a broader coalition in territories disputed by the KRG and Baghdad. Gorran, KIG and CDJ also visited Baghdad on January 4 separately from KDP and PUK in order to discuss KRG-Baghdad negotiations in an effort to boost their profile as an alternative to the KDP-PUK alliance. Meanwhile, the KDP decided to boycott election in some disputed territories, particularly Kirkuk, to protest Baghdad’s control over them. This split gives Baghdad leverage in negotiations over military and political control over the disputed territories, most importantly Kirkuk.