On September 21, Iraqi Kurdistan held paliamentary elections, which for the first time in 22 years, have fundamentally altered the region’s political landscape. Almost 3 million voters participated in the elections, with a total of 1,129 candidates competing for 111 parliamentary seats. While official results have been delayed by allegations of fraud, what the elections have made abundantly clear is the sweeping dissatisfaction with the Kurdistan Regional Government.
From its emergence in 1991, the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq has been ruled by an alliance of two parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Iraq’s ailing President Jalal Talabani. This duopoly was broken on September 21, when Talabani’s party appeared to hemmorage votes to the Gorran (Change) Movement, which split from the PUK in 2009. Preliminary results announced by the Independent High Electoral Commission on Sunday in which the KDP got 71,9004 votes, Gorran 44,6095 votes, PUK 33,2386 votes, Islamic Union 17,8681 votes, and Islamic Group 11,3260 votes. Eleven seats are reserved for minorities and religious sects. Gorran’s jump to the second-biggest party in the parliament marks a new era in Kurdish politics.
Gorran’s ascendance reflects widespread public disaffection with corruption and poor services in the KRG, especially areas held by the PUK. The PUK’s inability to meet rising public expectations and institute reforms demanded by its liberal base has proven to be its downfall. The KDP has managed to retain its position of dominance primarily through the threat of repression as well as a patronage system greased with oil money. Still, shifts in the Kurdish political landscape make continuation of the status quo an unlikely prospect.
The PUK’s fall from grace has gradually unfolded over more than a decade. The PUK and KDP effectively partitioned Iraqi Kurdistan among themselves in the early 1990s. The PUK’s government centered on Sulaymaniyah province, with the KDP holding Erbil and Duhok. In 2007, the two parties signed a formal unification agreement creating a single government but more or less maintaining the division of spoils between them.
In the early 2000s, a reformist group within the PUK proposed some packages to address corruption and nepotism within the party. However, the PUK’s old guard refused to meet any of the demands, allowing internal discontent to fester. Meanwhile, the PUK — which always presented itself as a progressive-reformist counterpart to the KDP — was increasingly tainted by the repression and cronyism for which its coalition partner was notorious.
In 2006, Talabani’s deputy and a PUK founder, Nawshirwan Mustafa, resigned from the PUK and built a huge media company. In 2009, he founded Gorran, which became a new home for the reformist group of PUK leaders and cadres, as well as members and supporters. Surprisingly, the just emergent movement won 25 seats in the 2009 parliamentary elections, defeating PUK in its Sulamaniyah stronghold.
Instead of enacting reforms, the PUK was effectively taken over by Talabani’s wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, who continued with the status quo. This only reinforced the growing perception that the Talabanis saw the PUK as a piece of family property more than anything else. Jalal Talabani’s son Qubad was made representative of the PUK in the United States before becoming KRG representative in Washington in 2006. When Qubad Talabani returned to Kurdistan in 2012, he was appointed to the dubious-sounding position of "Minister for Coordination and Follow-up," fuelling public bitterness at PUK nepotism.
Public discontent came to the surface in Sulaymaniyah after the Arab Spring, with crowds turning out to demand an end to repression and corruption. Police responded by killing 10 protesters, injuring 500. Despite that Sulamaniyah was a PUK stronghold the first time KDP’s guards opened fire, it had a negative impact on the PUK.
The PUK’s crisis continued in the absence of Jalal Talabani, who has remained hospitalized in Germany since December 2012. It was in absence of Talabani that the PUK politburo agreed to extend Barzani’s term two years, despite that there was absolutely no legal basis for doing so.
In the end, Gorran rode the wave of anti-PUK sentiment to the second position in the polls, to the surprise of few. The party shook the Kurdish political scene during its first four years in office, using its strong media presence to break silence on the public budget, corruption, lack of transparency over oil revenue, and human rights abuses. Gorran’s demand to use Kurdistan’s oil revenue to fund social programs for the poor appealed to a populace that had seen PUK and KDP party cronies get rich virtually overnight. Its candidates, many of them young and well-educated, reflected a more participatory understanding of politics than that shown by the PUK and KDP, which tend to use political appointments as an instrument of patronage.
The image of the KDP and the Barzani tribe has also suffered from rampant corruption, repression, and nepotism. However, a number of conditions allowed the party to avoid the crisis that befell the PUK. The KDP’s unchallenged hegemony in Erbil and Duhok means its 500,000 members have few other choices. It easily controls its members using threats and inducements, and KDP-held areas are generally more repressive and less free than PUK ones. In the PUK’s(former) zone, people have been voting without fearing losing their jobs or compromising their interests but in the KDP zone it was different. Unlike the PUK, the KDP’s internal decision-making process is rigid and centralized, allowing fewer opportunities for dissidents to air grievances. Finally, the Barzani tribe’s domination of business and oil revenue allows the KDP to fund a wider network of services and patronage, putting the PUK at a disadvantage.
Kurdistan faces an uncertain course ahead. None of the parties came out of the elections strong enough to form a cabinet alone, making a coalition inevitable. The main opposition’s demands will be unifying the Peshmerga and security forces, institutionalizing the government, ensuring the independence of the judiciary, creating a parliamentary political system, and tackling corruption. As the KDP is a pragmatic party favoring stable governance, it will likely work out some form of compromise on these points with either Gorran or the PUK.
Both the Gorran and PUK will be eager to govern with the KDP, but this would present dangers for both parties. Gorran risks squandering its oppositional image by partnering with the corrupt and repressive KDP. The PUK’s slide into irrelevance would only continue if it returned to the status quo ante.
The PUK’s internal crisis will exacerbate. After all, the PUK now needs to replace two positions of Talabani: one from Baghdad the other from Kurdistan. So far, none of PUK’s leaders can challenge the post-Talabani era. All eyes are on Barham Salih, the former KRG prime minister, to stabilize the party, but it is hard to believe that the reformist Salih can be accepted by the group that has control over almost all of PUK’s institutions, especially finance and security institutions.
The new dynamics will have significant implications for Baghdad as well as the broader region. The PUK has had agreements with Iraqi Shiiite parties, which will likely be impacted by the decline of the PUK. The Kurdish share in Iraq’s government will also change as Gorran will be a strong party in Iraq’s upcoming elections. As Gorran is a new party it has not yet allied with any Iraqi parties. As Shiites and Sunnis may have different coalitions in the upcoming elections, Kurds may divide as well. Additionally, Gorran has not aligned with any countries in the region.
Its policy has been to remain neutral, since there still is not a Kurdish state, Kurds can be contained in regional conflicts. So for Gorran, Kurds should not ally to either Turkey or Iran, instead they support keeping balance between these two main regional players.
All in all, the September 21 parliamentary election overturned the political order in Iraqi Kurdistan. The voters rewarded the Gorran Movement and punished the PUK in the hope that Gorran will not compromise for the KDP and will put an end to its hegemony and totalitarian intentions. People clearly expressed their anger on ballots; it is important to make them sure that their votes are heard on the tables of negotiation between the political parties in forming the new cabinet. If not, people are likely to think of other ways to push for change as has been recently seen throughout the region.
Kamal Chomani @kamalchomani is a Kurdish journalist covering Kurdish politics in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran for local and international outlets. He previously served on the editorial staff of the leading Kurdish political Lvin Magazine and was a Reporters Without Borders correspondent in the Kurdistan Region.