Kurdistan Region stalls government formation

Kurdistan Region stalls government formation

The last several years have been turbulent for the oil-rich Kurdistan Region. The local elections in September represented an opportunity to introduce some stability. However, it has largely led to the resumption of the infighting between the local parties. In turn, this has prevented the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from confronting systemic economic and social issues.

Government formation in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq hit a serious snag in mid-February after talks broke down between the two largest parties. This effectively puts the larger process on hold until policy-makers can negotiate a final agreement. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are historic rivals. Both have separate geographic bases of support. After the two parties signed a small agreement on March 4, the process appears to be in better shape. Even so, the underlying dynamics remain unchanged.

However, the balance of power in the Kurdistan Region is increasingly shifting towards the former. The PUK has about half as many seats in parliament. Simultaneously, it has resorted to aggressive negotiating tactics to enhance its leverage. There seems little chance of the KDP caving, nonetheless. This is because the party occupies a stronger position and can afford to play for time.

A fractured parliament – Government formation stalls

Voters went to the polls on September 30 and elected an unwieldy array of parties to the 111-seat parliament. Despite several parties raising serious allegations of electoral fraud, the Region’s courts certified the results in October. The KDP has a plurality of the seats with 45, while the PUK got 21. The Change Movement (also known as Gorran) won 12 and the New Generation Movement won 12. Islamists, ethnic and religious minorities, and other smaller parties fill up the remaining seats.

The KDP’s strategy during the government formation process has been to meet individually with the parties that seem most likely to join the new government. From there on, it would sign separate agreements with each, thereby co-opting them into supporting the KDP’s preferred positions. On February 16, Gorran concluded an agreement with the KDP setting it up for several ministries, the position of deputy president, and a leading role on a new anti-corruption board. In return, Gorran will support the KDP’s drive to reinstate the Region’s presidency.

Not all parties, however, have played along. The New Generation Movement, for instance, has taken a strongly oppositional stance from the beginning of its campaign, criticising both the KDP and the PUK as hopelessly corrupt. The Kurdistan Islamic Union will likely join the Movement, in opposition to KDP and the PUK.

Playing on weaknesses

For most of the winter season, it appeared that the PUK and the KDP were shuffling their way to an agreement. Nonetheless, as a scheduled session of parliament approached, greater issues crept into the talks, the greatest of these being Kirkuk, an oil-rich, multiethnic province just outside the Region’s constitutional boundaries. The Iraqi government lost vast swathes of the province to Islamic State in 2014. Even so, the Kurdish Peshmerga eventually dislodged the militants. Controlling Kirkuk and incorporating it into an independent Kurdish state has long been a goal of Iraq’s Kurdish leaders. On the other hand, the central government has also vigorously opposed this. The PUK has traditionally been the strongest Kurdish party in Kirkuk and had held the governorship prior to 2017.

Following the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum in September 2017, the Iraqi army and the mainly Shia paramilitaries of the Popular Mobilization Forces pushed the Peshmerga out of the province in October, restoring central government control. The PUK governor fled the province and was replaced with an acting governor appointed by Baghdad. Fairly or unfairly, the PUK was blamed for the loss and pilloried in the notoriously partisan Kurdish media.

Reinforcing strengths in the Kurdistan Region

Reclaiming the governorship has become a major goal for the party. Securing the material benefits of power and restoring its local prestige became a priority. Moreover, it suits the PUK to reach an internal Kurdish deal without involving Baghdad. The more involved the central government becomes, the less certain it is that the PUK will retain the governorship. Kirkuk’s other major ethnic groups – Arabs and Turkmen – have an ally in Baghdad. This means they will likely urge the capital to prevent installing a Kurdish governor.

Recognising both the PUK’s desire to return to power in Kirkuk and its vulnerability on the issue, the KDP has sought to use this as leverage to solve its own abiding problem: reactivating the Kurdistan Region’s presidency. If the PUK is vulnerable from the public perception that it lost Kirkuk, the referendum debacle is the KDP’s own weight to carry. Although the Region’s voters overwhelmingly supported independence, the referendum had little international support from US and European allies. Moreover, Baghdad and regional neighbours like Turkey and Iran vigorously opposed the referendum. When the Peshmerga withdrew from Kirkuk and the other disputed territories, any immediate hope of realising an independent Kurdistan were dashed.

The KDP’s leader, Masoud Barzani had been Kurdistan Region President since 2005. He has controversially extended his term twice. Facing the ruinous aftermath of the referendum, however, Barzani resigned. The law governing the presidency was suspended until the constitutional issues created by Barzani’s extended term could be settled. The KDP would dearly like to see the presidency reactivated. It has already nominated current KRG Prime Minister (and Masoud’s nephew) Nechirvan Barzani as their presidential nominee. This would further entrench the Barzanis and the KDP as the gravitational centre of Kurdish politics, both in the eyes of the electorate and foreign capitals.

The final steps are the hardest

On the face of the matter, it is a like-for-like exchange for the parties. Agreeing to a deal would achieve a deeply-desired goal for each. Historic rivalry, however, lingering recriminations from the election of the Iraqi presidency last fall, and wariness to give up leverage that could be used to exploit each other’s weaknesses are all likely behind their inability to “get to yes”.

Nonetheless, unlike Kirkuk, the Kurdistan presidency is an internal affair. The KDP can wait as long as it wants without worrying about interference from Baghdad. For the PUK, time is of the essence. Consequently, it has resorted to aggressive tactics, such as boycotting parliamentary meetings and stalling government formation.

On March 4, the KDP and PUK signed a 4-point agreement. The parties hailed this as a significant step toward forming the government. Little substantive information was released at the time and it is unclear when a cabinet might actually be formed. On March 10, the KDP spokesperson said that they had not discussed ministerial assignments with the PUK

Ultimately, however, the real losers are the people living in the Kurdistan Region. This includes both the Region’s citizens and the 1.5 million refugees and IDPs. Playing political games means that issues such as jobs, the economy, government reform, corruption, electricity production, health care, and a whole host of other everyday issues go unaddressed. The parties will soon begin meeting again for talks, but expectations for a breakthrough remain low.

About Author

Winthrop Rodgers

Winthrop Rodgers is the Senior Editor for NRT English in Sulaimani in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. He holds a Master’s in International Relations from Queen’s University Belfast. These views are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of NRT. You can follow him on Twitter at @wrodgers2.