Intel: How Iraq’s Kurds are failing to come together over their new president

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. Barzani was elected KRG president May 28. Photo by REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani.

May 28, 2019

Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), was elected president by the semi-autonomous region’s parliament today in a session that was boycotted by the second largest party.

Barzani, who is the nephew and son-in-law of the enclave’s veteran leader and former President Massoud Barzani, won 68 votes from 81 members present in the 111-member chamber. Members of the opposition Gorran (Change) Movement as well as Turkmens and Assyrians joined Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to push through the nomination despite the unexpected defection of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

In explaining its abstention, the PUK cited differences with the KDP over whom to back as the new governor of the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. New Generation, a fledgling opposition party, also boycotted the vote, saying it disagreed with how the new president was being elected.

Why it matters: The KDP says it had a deal with the PUK’s deputy secretary-general, Kosrat Rasool, to nominate a joint candidate, Faraidoun Abdulqadir, as governor of Kirkuk. “Everything was in place until 10 p.m. last night when the PUK politburo sent three other names for Kirkuk instead,” KDP lawmaker Hemin Hawrami told Al-Monitor. 

The sides had already decided on the PUK’s share of Cabinet posts in the KRG. Gorran and the PUK were each to be given a vice presidential post as part of the deal. The KDP said in a statement that the PUK had blatantly violated the agreement, indicating that the opposition party’s role in the new government is now up in the air.

Another sticking point concerns which candidate to tap for justice minister in the central government in Baghdad, a post that is usually reserved for Kurds. Hawrami said the sides had agreed on nominating a nonpartisan figure, but this has also fallen through. “This situation clearly stems from internal divisions within the PUK,” Hawrami said.

Bilal Wahab, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, concurred. Wahab said intra-party squabbles would likely further weaken the faction-riven PUK, but that the KRG as a whole also stands to lose.

“A new government with a diminished PUK role will be formed for sure, but it won’t be stable or strong because its power will be limited to Erbil,” Wahab told Al-Monitor. He was referring to the capital of the Kurdish region where the KDP holds sway. The PUK is the dominant force in Sulaimaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan’s second largest city. One point in the new president’s favor is that his mother was from Sulaimaniyah, which allows him to reach out to local residents in a way that none of the other clan members in power can.

What’s next: Barzani is expected to be sworn in as president by June 10 and then ask his cousin and brother-in-law, Masrour Barzani, to form a new Cabinet. The younger Barzani is currently in charge of the KRG’s intelligence services.

A new round of horse trading over which party gets which Cabinet posts will likely ensue. Hawrami said the new government would be formed “with or without the PUK.”  

The PUK’s Qubad Talabani will likely stay on as deputy prime minister. The urbane younger son of the late PUK founder Jalal Talabani gets on well with the Barzanis and has helped keep relations civil between the rival parties. 

Ashti Hawrami, the powerful energy minister and a protege of the president-elect, had been expected to retain his much-coveted post in the now lapsed deal with the PUK. However, it remains unclear whether he will be able to do so in a reshuffled deck. What seems certain is that Massoud Barzani will continue to have a say.

Know more: Don’t miss Amberin Zaman’s unrivaled reporting for more on Nechirvan Barzani’s plans as president and on how his presidency will affect the KRG’s internal power dynamics.

- Amberin Zaman

Correction: May 29, 2019. An earlier version of this piece incorrectly identified the PUK as the main opposition party in Iraqi Kurdistan. It actually shares power with its rival, the KDP.

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