Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 22 August 2019

Political stability key to Iraqi Kurds’ long-term prosperity

The emergence of a new political force in the Kurdish region creates challenges and opportunities.

Iraq’s Kurdistan region has been one of the biggest winners in Iraq’s post-2003 order. As much of the rest of Iraq descended into civil war and sectarian violence in 2006, the Kurdistan region had already secured far-reaching autonomy bordering on independence. The Kurds also gathered influential positions in Baghdad’s government, thereby gaining a strategically vital role in Iraqi political affairs.

Iraqi Kurdistan has also made the most of its stable security environment by exploiting its oil and gas reserves, independent of the Baghdad government. It is close to finishing a pipeline project that will give it enhanced autonomy from Iraq.

However, any Kurdish gains will mean little if Kurds are unable to maintain their own stability.

While Iraq’s Kurds face challenges, like others in the region, emanating from the Syrian conflict, it is Iraqi Kurdistan’s domestic politics that will put its stability to the test.

The advent of the opposition group Gorran, in 2009, dramatically affected the political climate. An offshoot of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by a former PUK deputy and co-founder, Newshirwan Mustafa, Gorran aims to break the two-party dominance of PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The party has campaigned on a platform of reform and modernisation, lambasting PUK and KDP for corruption, cronyism and nepotism. The 2009 parliamentary elections saw Gorran emerge as Iraqi Kurdistan’s first viable opposition group, with the PUK-KDP alliance receiving 57 per cent of the votes, a sharp decline from the 85 per cent it received in the 2005 election. Gorran’s advent into Kurdish politics dealt a severe blow to both parties, in particular the PUK, which saw Gorran take its most important political base, the PUK stronghold province of Sulaymaniah.

Parliamentary elections were held again last month – in which all three parties contested independently – setting a significant milestone for Kurdish politics.

The PUK opted to go it alone because its members were unhappy about the KDP’s dominance in the political scene. PUK members also believed that the party would fare better if the two parties that fought a bloody civil war in the 1990s distanced themselves from each other.

But the PUK’s decision proved to be a miscalculation. The PUK has in recent years suffered from immense factionalism, for which it suffered during the 2009 parliamentary elections, as well as during the 2010 Iraq-wide elections when it lost further ground to Gorran. Nor has the party been helped by the continued hospitalisation of its head and founder, as well as current Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, who suffered a stroke in last year.

Consequently, and perhaps unsurprisingly, the PUK came third in last month’s elections. Gorran emerged with a total of 24 seats, capturing almost 450,000 votes, compared with the PUK’s 18 seats and 320,000 votes.

The KDP emerged as the supreme political force in the region, gaining 38 seats and approximately 750,000 votes.

In other words, the elections saw Gorran assert itself as an alternative to PUK, which is likely to experience further decline. The embarrassment caused by the electoral losses has intensified factionalism within the party, with the upper echelons divided on whether to join the forthcoming coalition government alongside the KDP, and possibly Gorran, or alternatively to take a step back from governance and rectify its problems by operating in opposition.

The PUK is also susceptible to losing its members to Gorran, as they try to escape what they may perceive to be a sinking ship. Worse still, some PUK officials may depart and form their own breakaway groups, which would effectively signal the end of the party.

The PUK’s dilemma is two-fold. If it opts to join a coalition government, then it would mean that the party essentially objects to the public’s rejection. That would damage the party’s credibility in the long run. However, by staying out of government it could allow Gorran to consolidate its influence, expand its support base and put itself in a position to replace PUK as the region’s number two.

In essence, there are three scenarios for the PUK’s future.

In the first, the party actually reforms and reorganises itself and appoints a successor to Jalal Talabani. In the second scenario, PUK continues as it is. In other words, it may make a few symbolic changes but fails to adequately reform. Some PUK sources have suggested that the upper echelons of the party are content with being a military and commercial power on the ground, regardless of whether the party has a presence in parliament. That would be disastrous for the party.

In the third, the PUK disintegrates into smaller political parties (the second scenario would, in all likelihood, lead to the third scenario). The decline of the PUK could have adverse implications on Iraqi Kurdistan’s stability, because that would embolden Gorran, which is anti-status quo, anti-KDP and seeks an end to the family-based politics of the region.

Inspired by protests elsewhere in the Middle East, Gorran in 2011 called for the dissolution of the KRG and the dismissal of the KDP-PUK security and intelligence forces, along with other demands that included the formation of a technocratic government. Those demands were soon followed by demonstrations in Sulaymaniah – a Gorran stronghold – but failed to garner momentum beyond the province.

The end of the PUK would also see Gorran increase its support base and, therefore, its capacity to mobilise the masses. In other words, the ascent of Gorran could mean a source of intra-Kurdish conflict in the long-run.

Divisions in Iraqi Kurdistan would also undermine the Kurds’ position in Baghdad, where Kurdish unity and discipline has been a linchpin of the post-2003 Kurdish success story. Whether intra-Kurdish conflict takes place depends on how Gorran evolves over the coming years, and whether it integrates itself into Iraqi Kurdistan’s political system by working as part of this system or, alternatively, against it and whether it can work with the KDP and PUK, whose own reform programme will be vital for the stability of the region.

Ranj Alaaldin is a doctoral researcher at the London School of Economics and Political Science

On Twitter: @ranjalaaldin

Updated: November 19, 2013 04:00 AM

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