Impacts of Political Fragmentation in Iraqi Kurdistan

  • Jan Faltys
  • 23.9.2015 16:40

Political stalemate in the only country capable of fighting the IS.

The Iraqi part of Kurdistan found itself caught in a political stalemate after the mandate of President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani, expired on August 19, 2015 and fragmented political scene has not yet managed to agree on the renewal of his mandate. The Kurds get significant media support in the past few months due to their fight against the Islamic state (IS). Although Kurdistan is often called a homogeneous region, it is far from truth. Disagreements between main political parties of the only autonomous region of Iraq undermine the Kurdish strength and unity. That plays and will play significant role in fights against the IS which currently presents the greatest regional threat to peace and security. On the other hand, the IS could be a force to bring together the Kurdish political parties.

The Iraqi part of Kurdistan, situated on the territories of Syria, Turkey and Iran, is populated by more than 8 million people and is governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) led by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) controlled by the Barzani family clan. The KDP has always had closer relations with Turkey that in the Iraq Kurdistan has an open way to the Near East and a great investment opportunity (the unofficial sources report a business transaction worth 12 billion USD). The KDP has also profiled itself as a pro-Western conservative party with strong links to international companies. A political party with greatest influence historically is the centre-left Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) controlled by the Talabani clan. The PUK, that is often connected with Iran, has been losing its power for the last few years – which partly resulted from the party's founder Jalala Talabani's weakened health and also from the establishment of the Gorran party that split off from the PUK, took many voters from the PUK and replaced the PUK as the second most powerful party in the KRG.

Disagreements between the parties escalated around August 19, the day that should have been the last for the KRG President, Masoud Barzani. Controversy from 2013 – when Barzani's presidency term was extended by two years thanks to an interparty agreement – is being repeated but the agreement makes another extension impossible. As the strongest party, the KDP wants to keep the current presidential term and extend it. The KDP arguments that Barzani was appointed to the presidency by the Parliament in 2005 and was only officially elected in 2009. That means that he was elected President for only one term and he can stay in the presidency. The opposition parties, led by the PUK and Gorran, want to avoid such ambiguity in the future and they would prefer to limit presidential powers and to shift to parliamentary system. However, not even the sum of all the votes of the individual groups is enough to pass such a legal adjustment.

In hot summer months that contribute to inactivity on the battlefield, this political fight was perceived as important but with summer fading away the political conflict will be joined by the armed one. In the past weeks armed forces of the KRG, Peshmerga, achieved several important victories around Kirkuk city. However their true advantage is knowledge of the rocky terrain and effective defence. The formal head of the Kurdish armed forces is President Barzani but in reality is Peshmerga divided according to clan and regional bonds. It often happens that individual divisions do not intercommunicate which could prove fatal on the battlefield.

Nevertheless, the IS's intention to completely destroy the Kurds could be an advantage for the Kurds for several reasons. Firstly, the IS presents an existential threat to the Kurds which might make them cooperate better. Not just between the PUK and the KDP but also between the Syrian PYD and the Turkish Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Secondly, the fights for Kobane and other Syrian cities (e.g. Aleppo) where the Kurdish forces were successful is a great source of inspiration for recruiting of new fighters. Thirdly, the IS is often marked as public enemy number one which results in support for groups that oppose the IS. Mustafa, the former military commander of Kurdish forces, announced on 9th September 2015 that the U.S. decided to train and arm three brigades of the Peshmerga. The last theoretical advantage is that if their effort to push back and eventually destroy the IS will meet with success, it will increase their international prestige which could definitely help their endeavour to establish their own state.

While the political crises concerning presidential mandate did not directly jeopardized the fight of the Kurds against the IS, it is an important moment in the development of political system of Kurdistan. Fear of possible monarchization of presidency remains the main argument of the opposition advocating for change of the political system and for the end of mandate of President Barzani. The governing KDP will want at least short-term extension of the President's mandate to keep political stability and international recognition that Kurdistan has been getting in the past few years during President Barzani's administration.


About author: Jan Faltys


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