October 9, 2018 / 03:43 PM
Power struggle deepens in Iraqi Kurdistan after elections / Stephen Quillen

Both of Kurdistan’s major political parties scored electoral victories recently but remain deeply divided as Iraq’s new government and Kurdistan’s regional parliament take shape.

The leading Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) won an estimated 45 of the 111 seats in the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region parliament and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PKK) catapulted its candidate to the Iraqi presidency despite divisions over whom to nominate within the Kurdish camp.

Barham Salih, a veteran Kurdish politician seen as a protege of late Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, was voted in as Iraqi president by parliament on October 2. Seen as a moderate capable of dealing with both the United States and Iran, Salih was touted as a unifying figure for a post-war country in need of stable leadership.

 “President Barham Salih has a strong personality and he’s well respected by the West and regional countries and most importantly Iran,” PUK lawmaker Rebwar Taha told Reuters.

As he was sworn into office, Salih vowed to “safeguard Iraq’s unity and safety.”

 “I will be the president of Iraq and not of a certain group or entity,” he said, before naming independent Shia politician Adel Abdul-Mahdi as the country’s next prime minister.

Despite receiving support from Iraq’s allies and the international community, Salih’s nomination was contentious in the Kurdish bloc, which usually rallies around the candidate nominated by the PUK but this year failed to reach consensus.

As per an informal power-sharing arrangement since 2006, the KDP has controlled the Kurdistan Regional Government presidency and the PUK has controlled the Iraqi presidency, a largely ceremonial post that is secondary to the prime minister.

This year the KDP argued the informal deal was no longer in effect and fielded its own candidate — Fouad Hussein, former chief of staff to the KRG presidency — after the two parties failed to agree.

Despite receiving strong public backing from influential KDP President Masoud Barzani, Hussein failed to shore up significant support in Iraq’s parliament, receiving 89 votes against Salih’s 165 in the first round.

Reacting to the PUK candidate’s victory, the KDP said in a statement: “We do not consider the post as representing the people of Kurdistan.”

The development, analysts said, pointed to a growing power struggle between Kurdistan’s two major parties, which together have formed a majority in parliament since 1992 but soured after the disputed independence referendum a year ago that led to crippling sanctions and a loss of territory for Iraqi Kurds.

 “Barham’s win means more political instability for the (Kurdistan) region,” wrote Iraqi Kurdistan-based journalist Fazel Hawramy on Twitter. “The (KDP) will never accept this result.”

Yerevan Saeed, a Middle political analyst who specialises on Kurdish affairs, tweeted before the vote: “A year ago Kurds had an independence referendum to secede from Iraq. Today, the two ruling Kurdish parties are almost ready to kill one another to get Iraqi presidential post. We love to walk on the extremes.”

Others pointed out that the dispute could drive the KDP to form a majority in parliament without the PUK, its traditional ruling partner, as well as break away from other informal power-sharing mechanisms.

Kamal Chomani, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told Egypt Today that the jockeying over Iraq’s presidency was “practically the end of the KDP-PUK’s so-called strategic agreement in which the two parties and families have been dividing every single position in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Baghdad.”

Apart from the KDP-PUK rivalry, the two leading parties also face backlash from opposition movements, which have accused them of engaging in voter fraud in the September 30 election.

 “Degrading the commission and disrespecting commission employees were never as obvious as (in) the current election,” Shaswar Abdulwahid, leader of the newly formed New Generation Movement, wrote in a letter to the electoral commission. “I call on you to not ratify the results and dismantle this election.”

With 85% of votes counted, the KRG was well ahead, taking 43.9% of the vote compared to the PUK’s 21.2%. The Gorran (Change) movement trailed with 12.1%, with the New Generation Movement next at 8.4% followed by the Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal) with 7% and the Towards Reform alliance with 5.1%.

The Arab Weekly

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