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 After Inconclusive Elections, Iraq’s Kurds Will Struggle to Speak With a Single Voice

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PostSubject: After Inconclusive Elections, Iraq’s Kurds Will Struggle to Speak With a Single Voice   Mon Nov 05, 2018 10:24 pm



A Kurdish man casts a ballot during parliamentary elections in the autonomous region of Kurdistan, Iraq, Sept. 30, 2018 (DPA photo by Tobias Schreiner via AP Imag





Talks are ongoing to form a governing coalition in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, after no party gained an outright majority in parliamentary elections held Sept. 30. The Kurdistan Democratic Party won 45 out of 111 seats in the local Parliament, while its junior coalition partner, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, came in second with 21 seats. Yet opposition parties have rejected the results, claiming violations in the electoral process. In an interview with WPR, Renad Mansour, a research fellow in the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House and a visiting fellow at the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, discusses the implications of the elections and the prospects for forming a coalition.

World Politics Review: What explains the Kurdistan Democratic Party’s strong showing in preliminary election results, and to what extent did last year’s failed independence referendum play a role?

Renad Mansour: For the past few election cycles, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, has been the most popular political party in Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly in Duhok and Irbil, the capital. Several factors explain its popularity. Its main traditional rival—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK—has splintered into a number of opposition parties and movements, splitting their once-unified vote. By contrast, the KDP has maintained relatively stronger cohesion during recent election cycles, and has successfully mobilized its political networks based primarily on social, political and economic patronage. In addition, the KDP has been the most effective at employing Kurdish nationalism. In this regard, it relies on its links to its founding father, Mullah Mustafa Barzani, who during his life led the Kurdish nationalist movement. 

Part of this nationalism card was the 2017 independence referendum, which was driven primarily by the KDP. The fragmented opposition groups, including the PUK as well as the more recently formed Gorran and New Generation parties, did not actively lead the push for independence. Some even rejected the idea or argued “no for now.” The KDP relied on the independence referendum to bolster its nationalist credentials, and has benefited from an ethno-nationalist message in election campaigns to build its constituencies. As a result, it continues to perform effectively in elections despite an inability to offer good governance, public services or accountability.

WPR: Given the many divisions in Kurdish politics, what are the prospects for forming a viable coalition government?

Mansour: Divisions are not new to Kurdish politics. Since 1998, a strategic agreement that ended a three-year civil war between the KDP and the PUK has served as the foundation of the Kurdistan Regional Government. Some PUK members, such as KRG Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani, who won the most votes of any single parliamentary candidate in the September elections, continue to enjoy strong relations with the KDP. However, tensions between the two parties remain high following the election this month of the PUK’s Barham Salih as president of Iraq, a largely ceremonial position that is nonetheless key to forming a new government. The KDP felt that the PUK reneged on a backroom deal to get their candidate into the position. Despite that dispute, it is difficult to see the KDP not working with the PUK and other opposition parties, as the alternative would be a return to two administrations, as in the 1990s when rival Kurdish governments were based in Irbil and Sulaymaniyah. The Irbil-based KDP, which garnered more support than the fragmented parties in Sulaymaniyah, would want to avoid such a scenario.

WPR: How is the election result likely to affect the KRG’s relations with the central government in Baghdad, as well as with the Kurds’ traditional Western allies?

Mansour: The KDP’s strong performance in this election will afford it legitimacy to speak on behalf of the Kurds in negotiations. As a result, the KDP will likely continue to be the lead negotiator in relations with both Baghdad and with international actors. The election of Adil Abdul-Mahdi as Iraqi prime minister is a positive turn for the KDP. The party has a history of strong relations with Abdul-Mahdi, now an independent Shiite politician, stemming back to his involvement with the anti-Saddam opposition movement in the mountains of Kurdistan in the 1980s. 

However, the election of Salih as president, which revealed fragmentation within the Kurdish leadership, presents an alternative to the KDP’s stance toward Iraq’s central government. Over the past few years—particularly following the death of veteran Kurdish PUK leader Jalal Talabani, who was succeeded by the weak and ineffective Fuad Maasum—the KDP had taken control of negotiations with Baghdad over contentious issues like oil exports and revenues and the national budget. The re-emergence of Salih, who is a well-known personality in Iraqi politics, represents a potentially different channel for relations between Irbil and Baghdad. Salih has long advocated that issues between the KRG and the central government should be resolved on a bilateral basis, whereas the KDP has in the past sought to internationalize disputes through diplomatic relations with other states. For example, under the KDP, the Kurdish government struck oil deals with Turkey and Russia over the objections of Baghdad. 

Salih remains opposed to the KDP’s past tactics, such as the referendum threat, and will seek compromise with Iraq’s Arab parties. That’s why the KDP tried to stop Salih from re-emerging into politics and becoming president. It was prepared to offer his party, the PUK, many other government posts instead, but the backroom dealing was unsuccessful. Salih and the PUK are now seeking to open new channels to represent the Kurdish nationalist movement in Baghdad and abroad. However, the KDP has also returned to the negotiating table in Baghdad in an attempt to use less adversarial tactics. Moving forward, it is clear that multiple sides will attempt to negotiate for the Kurds in Baghdad, preventing the region from being represented by a single voice.


https://www.worldpoliticsreview.com/trend-lines/26678/after-inconclusive-elections-iraq-s-kurds-will-struggle-to-speak-with-a-single-voice
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