Today, Iraqis are holding their breath. Their president is hanging between life and death. While doctors have noted his relatively stable condition, they doubt that he will be able to carry out his duties again — that is, if he were to survive. Iraqis are very afraid of losing Kurdish President Jalal Talabani. The consensual leader is a unique figure in the tense Iraqi scene.
Many inside and outside Iraq hope that “Mam Jalal” — “uncle Jalal” as the Kurds like to call him — will overcome this difficult dilemma. He has had several medical setbacks since 2007, but was able to continue his successful role in leading Iraqi political affairs, mainly concerning issues between Baghdad and Erbil.
However, in a situation as such, a normal question cannot be ignored: Who will succeed the president?
While a German medical team that arrived in Iraq Dec. 19 prepares to transfer the Iraqi president to Germany to receive “more precise and thorough” treatment, Iraqis are trying to comprehend the consequences of Talabani’s health crisis, the possible collapse of the efforts undertaken by him to resolve the heated crisis between Baghdad and Erbil, and the possible scenarios over the next period at the security and political levels.
Although there are many candidates for succeeding Talabani — who took office in 2005 and whose term was renewed between 2006 and 2010 — there is unanimity that none of them have Talabani’s charisma and ability to gain the trust of the various parties, including Baghdad, Erbil, Ankara, Tehran, Damascus and the United States.
Iraqi MP for the Kurdistan Alliance Mahmoud Othman confirmed this fact to As-Safir. He said that Talabani’s health condition has a very negative effect and portends bad consequences, especially since trust is almost non-existent among Iraqi parties and that Talabani was the only link between them.
Professor of political science at Baghdad University Hamid Fadil agrees with Othman’s view, saying that “the health emergency came at a very inappropriate time.” Fadil told As-Safir that “losing Talabani would mean the loss of almost the only voice of moderation.”
Although the Kurdish parties refuse to talk openly about Talabani’s successor, the name of former Prime Minister of Kurdistan Barham Saleh — an accepted figure in Washington — is being proposed in the political corridors, according to Fadil.
Historical leaders in the Kurdistan region, such as Kosrat Rasul (who has a critical health condition), Mala Bakhtiar, and General Coordinator of the Movement for Change Nawshirwan Mustafa are competing with him on the presidency of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), since there is a consensual agreement that the post belongs to the Kurds.
Other sources confirm that Sunni figures, some of which have the support of Maliki, aspire to fill the post based on the adopted sectarian quota system.
Here lies the biggest fear. The Kurds are entitled to the post, as per the political agreements and the system of distribution of posts. However, given that all treaties have been breached and differences have grown between the blocs, everything becomes legitimate so long as it serves political interests.
During the upcoming period, Vice President Khudair Khuzaie (after the exclusion of first deputy Tariq al-Hashemi due to charges of terrorism) will assume the responsibilities of the president for a month, until another president is elected. According to Article 75 of the constitution, “the vice president replaces the president when the post becomes vacant for any reason, and parliament must elect a new president during a period not exceeding 30 days starting from the date that the post became vacant.”
According to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), some Kurds may push Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the uncle of the president of the Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani, to power. The move may open the door to wide conflicts about the identity of the person who will hold the position of foreign minister. In addition, there is a possibility that Iyad Allawi might return to the arena of competition.
In fact, there are fears today of a possible escalation of the Kurdish-Kurdish conflict, and of a disruption of a settlement between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Kurdish President Barzani.
Fadil told As-Safir that Talabani's party is witnessing internal fragmentation and power struggles following the defection led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, and amid the growing influence of Barzani in the region and his attempt to monopolize power.
Although there are many candidates for succeeding Talabani, fears cannot be dispelled. No one can replace Talabani or take his role. According to the AEI, "He would negotiate one day with Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani in Farsi, the next day with American diplomats in fluent English, debate Prime Minister Maliki in Arabic, and then instruct his own staff in Kurdish."
In this context, Fadil said "Barham Salih may have a modern perspective on the presidency, and good relations with Washington as a modern diplomat; however, he lacks the natural charisma of Talabani, who is well-liked and accepted by everyone."
This is not to mention that Talabani has a history of struggle, as he fought alongside Mustafa — Barzani's father — and is capable of controlling Massoud's irrational tendencies and containing the arms' issue raging between him and Baghdad. Talabani is also known for his political struggle, as he occupied a high position in the Kurdish National Party, but he defected from this party in 1974 to join the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
While the presidential position — in terms of constitutional powers — does not inflict a major power vacuum at the level of managing the affairs of the country, Talabani's departure from the troubled Iraqi political landscape is considered a big loss. Political opponents used to refer to him, as he is a man of consensus who has political savvy and a history of equal relations with everyone. Eventually, all Iraqis will wait for a miracle that would bring back their consensual man, who would lead the political settlement project, or at least help them overcome the upcoming phase with minimum losses, which remain serious damages even in the best-case scenario.