Intel: How new presidency will affect power dynamics in Iraqi Kurdistan

al-monitor Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani speaks during a news conference after casting his vote during parliamentary elections in the semi-autonomous region in Erbil, Iraq, Sept. 30, 2018.  Photo by REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani.

May 8, 2019

Lawmakers in the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament formally reactivated the office of the presidency today in a session presided over by the body’s first female speaker, Vala Farid. The position was frozen when Massoud Barzani stepped aside after the 2017 independence referendum. The plebiscite had been fiercely opposed by Baghdad, as well as by Iran, Turkey and the United States, setting the stage for Iraqi military action and the loss of Kurdish control of Kirkuk and other contested territories. Barzani’s nephew and son-in-law, Nechirvan Barzani, has since held the fort as prime minister. 

Why it matters: On a practical level, the move is critical for the long-delayed formation of a government in the wake of parliamentary elections held in September. The parliament agreed today that it — not the public — will elect the next president. 

Barzani had been directly elected following a prior change via legislation. The main opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and especially Gorran had vehemently opposed the shift, saying it would give Barzani, the presumptive winner, too much power.

It remains unclear whether the president or the prime minister will now hold the reins. Bilal Wahab, a Wagner Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, spoke to Al-Monitor about the vacuum created by the lack of a constitution in Iraqi Kurdistan. “[It] means that after each election, the system has to be customized to properly reflect the power landscape,” Wahab said.

Barzani or Barzani? It’s a foregone conclusion that Nechirvan will be elected president because his uncle’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) stitched that up in a deal with the PUK and Gorran whereby each party will fill a deputy president slot in exchange. Masrour Barzani, the current intelligence chief and Massoud’s son, will get the premiership, all part of a succession plan devised by the patriarch. The burning question is which of the cousins will ultimately prevail — Nechirvan or Masrour? 

Oil and guns: The Parliament also decided that the president will retain the powers enjoyed by Massoud Barzani. This suggests that the president will remain commander in chief of the peshmerga, a key pillar of influence.

Energy is the main source of income and patronage in Iraqi Kurdistan. Nechirvan Barzani developed the sector from scratch, inking massive deals with global oil majors and more recently with Russia. The soon-to-be president is said to be fighting to retain influence over the dossier by keeping his long-time ally and energy minister Ashti Hawrami in place. His cousin Masrour, however, is bent on bringing in fresh blood. A notable exception is Safeen Dizayee, the British-educated government spokesman who hails from the influential Dizayee clan and is widely seen as a shoo-in for foreign minister.

The PUK and Gorran are angling for plum posts, including finance. Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabany of the PUK will stay on. The new cabinet is unlikely to be announced before the end of Ramadan, the month of fasting. 

What’s next? As spy chief, Masrour Barzani has mostly operated in the shadows, surrounded by loyalists. Now he will need to master the art of dealmaking and consensus building, and for this he will need his cousin Nechirvan’s help. Survival of the Barzani family has always trumped personal rivalries, so don’t expect any Borgia-style backstabbing. More likely, squabbles with the PUK and Gorran will continue to hinder Iraqi Kurdistan’s path to clean government and stability and maintaining a common front toward Baghdad.

Know more: Read Al-Monitor’s exclusive interview with Nechirvan Barzani and how Turkey wants his government’s help.

– Amberin Zaman

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

Recommended Articles

Facebook closes accounts linked to Kurdish intelligence in Iraq
Adam Lucente | Kurds | Jun 5, 2020
Turkey's assault against Syrian Kurds leaves trail of misery and spin
Amberin Zaman | Turkish-Kurdish conflict | May 29, 2020
Turkey conducts rare strike in Iraq's Sulaimaniyah province against PKK
Al-Monitor Staff | Turkish-Kurdish conflict | May 27, 2020
PKK attacks Turkish military base in Kurdistan Region of Iraq
Adam Lucente | Turkish-Kurdish conflict | May 14, 2020
Turkey targets US-backed Syrian Kurdish peace talks
Amberin Zaman | Syria Conflict | May 12, 2020