Iraqi Kurdish politics undergoing momentous changes

Iraqi Kurdish politics undergoing momentous changes

Analysis: Talabani's death and Barzani's resignation herald a new era in Kurdish politics, writes Paul Iddon.
4 min read
09 November, 2017
An era has ended in Kurdish politics, but the sun always rises again [AFP]
Momentous changes have taken place in Iraqi Kurdistan's politics in the past two months, from the passing of Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) to the stepping aside of the Kurdistan Democratic Party's (KDP) leader, Masoud Barzani, from the region's presidency.

President Barzani's decision to leave his post isn't entirely a direct result of the fallout from the September 25 independence referendum. Barzani stated quite unequivocally in recent months that on November 1 he wouldn't run for another term. Nevertheless, the timing of him stepping aside is still hugely significant, given the crisis now afflicting the region.

Barzani's presidential powers have been reallocated to Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani (Masoud's nephew), the presidency of the council of ministers, the judicial council and the Kurdistan parliament's presidential body.

As the primary figure in Kurdish politics in recent years, the former president is still expected to have plenty of influence.

"I think for the past 20 years, Barzani has invested enough in his family to consolidate their power - to an extent to be able to stay in power even as he quits the presidency or in the case of his death," Iraqi Kurdish analyst Abdulla Hawez told The New Arab.

"The main question is not about the power of the Barzani family, as they will stay as powerful - given their wealth, security and media - but rather it is the power struggle between Nechirvan Barzani and Masrur, whose differences have largely stayed unreported.

"I think, as Barzani steps down, the power struggle between these two cousins is what we should watch."

Masoud's acquiescence to Nechirvan is therefore a compromise of sorts

President Barzani is understood to have favoured his son Masrour Barzani as his successor. Masrour heads the Chancellor of the Kurdistan Region's Security Council and the KDP's Parastin intelligence agency.

Nechirvan, on the other hand, has controlled the party's finances and was doubtlessly the potential successor preferred by Iraq and Kurdistan's neighbours. He didn't give vocal support to the referendum, as did Masoud and Masrour, and also proposed to freeze its results in bid to halt the Iraqi advance on Kurdish-held areas and kick-start negotiations with Baghdad.

Masoud's acquiescence to Nechirvan is therefore a compromise of sorts, in light of the immense pressure Iraqi Kurdistan has faced since the referendum.

The Talabanis and the PUK

The PUK shakeup that followed the death of former Iraqi president and long-time party leader Jalal Talabani in early September has been much more significant and serious - especially since the Iraqi takeover of Kirkuk, which was a largely PUK-controlled province.

The alleged collusion by the Talabani house with Baghdad appears to have taken a heavy toll on the PUK's fame and credibility

"It's obvious the Talabani family has practically taken over the PUK," Iraqi Kurdish analyst Yerevan Saeed of the Middle East Research Institute told The New Arab. "They control the finance and the security forces of the party. This has created tremendous discontent within the PUK's leadership.

"The alleged collusion by the Talabani house with Baghdad appears to have taken a heavy toll on the PUK's fame and credibility," he said. "Some PUK leaders have disowned themselves from the deal made by some figures with Baghdad - and even called it 'treason'."

Jalal Talabani's son, Bafel Talabani, who until recently remained behind the scenes in the PUK, keeping a low-profile with no official title, and his cousin, Lahur Talabani, the head of the PUK's powerful Zanyari intelligence service, are the prime suspects in ordering the withdrawal of PUK Peshmerga forces from Kirkuk. They are thought to be behind the deal with Baghdad to give some concessions to the PUK-controlled parts of Kurdistan, namely Sulaimani and Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan's east, in return.

"Unless the Talabanis are ready to share power and run the PUK based on the internal programme of the party, more fractures and fragmentations of the PUK are likely in the coming months," Saeed said. "If that happens, the PUK's vote and power base will be further undermined and reduced not just in Kurdistan Region, but in Iraq too."

While the KDP has always been led by the Barzani family, the PUK was founded by a variety of Kurdish figures - including many ex-KDP members, discontent with its dynastic leadership. They had a more intellectual veneer and were considered more leftist - the party is a member of the Socialist International, and its founder, Ahmad Ibrahim (father of Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the widow of Jalal and mother of Bafel), was a leftist intellectual. All this means the recent domination of the Talabani family has become more significant and, given the PUK's origins, in many ways ironic.

Whatever happens in the coming weeks and months it's clear that the death of Jalal Talabani and the stepping aside of Masoud Barzani are both hugely significant, given the titanic influence these men wielded in Iraqi Kurdistan and beyond for many decades.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon