On July 25, 2009 the residents of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will vote on a new regional parliament and president. While there are real challengers this time in the legislature, the election is unlikely to break the hold the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of KRG President Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani have over the region. The two parties have ruled Kurdistan since it gained its autonomy after the 1991 Gulf War. Since the 2003 U.S. invasion, the two once bitter enemies have united to maintain their power.
Mullah Mustafa Barzani, the father of Massoud, was the most prominent leader of the Kurdish independence movement. He formed the Mahabad Republic, a Kurdish state, in 1945, which was later crushed. He fled to Russia afterwards, while his son Massoud went to Iraq. In 1946 Mustafa formed the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and returned to Iraq in 1958, and started fighting against the government with the support of Iran. In the 1960s Jalal Talabani left the KDP, and formed his own Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
In 1979 Mustafa died and Massoud assumed control of the KDP. He launched his own insurgency against the Iraqi government during the Iran-Iraq War. At the time, the Barzanis and the KDP were based out of Iran, and he and Talabani fought on the Iranian side during the war with Iraq. After the Gulf War Kurdistan gained its autonomy with the help of the United States, and Barzani and Talabani assumed leadership of the region.
In the mid-1990s a civil war broke out between the two parties with Talabani looking to Iran for help, and Barzani turning to Saddam. The Iraqi Army moved into Kurdistan in 1996 at the invitation of the KDP, and crushed the PUK. In 1998 the two sides stopped fighting after 500 civilians were killed.
In the wake of this conflict, two separate administrations were created in Kurdistan, the KDP in Irbil and the PUK in Sulaymaniya. These were informally called Barzanistan and Talabanistan because of the tight control the two families exerted over all facets of life. The judiciary and parliament were the only two bodies that were shared between the two. Otherwise, the two had separate militias, separate security forces, etc. In December 2002, with the U.S. invasion expected, the PUK and KDP signed an accord to end their rivalry, and provide a united front in the new Iraq. This eventually worked out well as the Kurds were able to ensure their autonomy, and a process to annex Kirkuk under the Transitional Administrative Law in 2004 and the Iraqi Constitution in 2005. The Kurds were also able to gain high positions in Baghdad such as Talabani becoming the Iraqi president.
In 2006 the KDP and PUK signed a unification agreement to bring together the two separate administrations. While many officers have been brought together, some of the most important ones, the Finance Ministry, the peshmerga, and the asayesh security forces, have not. There are many members of the old guard in both parties and their peshmerga who are still bitter over the civil war. The militias are also loyal to their political leaders, and not the Kurdish government or Baghdad. The two sides also have different cultures within their administrations, as well as divergent laws, especially on foreign investment, and have not agreed upon how to split revenues. The two Finance Ministries have also made long-term commitments and investments, which have to be completed before the budgets can be unified. These are all reasons why these institutions remain separate.
What the two parties have agreed upon is to maintain their power over the region. The unification agreement gives specific posts in the KRG only to PUK and KDP members for example. The two parties also have extensive patronage systems. For instance, it’s recently been reported that after a four-year hiring freeze the regional government has hired 2,500 new employees just as campaigning started for the Kurdish parliament. Many believe this is a political move to gain more voters in the election. Top positions throughout Kurdistan are also reserved for party members. University presidents, university councils, deans, heads of departments, and scholarships are all connected to the political parties.
Corruption and nepotism are also common complaints about the PUK and KDP. Business deals usually require a high level party official to be completed. The Barzani and Talabani clans have extensive business deals throughout the region, and the latter are said to be worth $2 billion. Family members are also found throughout the government. Massoud’s son Masrour, who is currently the party’s security chief, is going to be the next KDP leader, while his cousin Nechervan is the KRG Prime Minister.
The PUK and KDP’s control of the security forces have also allowed them to go after their political opponents. In May 2009 for example, the Committee to Protect Journalists released a letter to the KRG complaining about lawsuits against and arrests of journalists that criticized the government. The Committee found that while a new law was passed in September 2008 to protect journalists, government officials often use an older law from 1969 to sue reporters who are critical of the KRG. The Committee considered this unjust and a form of harassment. More serious were arrests of journalists and other critical voices, which was detailed in an April 2009 Amnesty International report. In the 2005 elections, the KDP was also accused of attacking the Kurdistan Islamic Union.
These have all become issues with voters in Kurdistan, and even within the ruling parties themselves. In late 2008 a group called the Movement for Democratic Change was formed within the PUK calling for political reform. Talabani kicked them out of the party. Later in February 2009 some of the top members of the party threatened to leave unless the PUK initiated internal reforms to fight corruption, nepotism, and provide greater transparency. Talabani agreed to their demands this time as regional elections were pending, and he couldn’t afford so many high level defections beforehand. Now as a date for that voting has been set, the PUK and KDP are facing their first real political challenge in the regional parliament. Domestic issues are also said to be more important than the Kurds’ dispute with Baghdad or Kirkuk. Voters are demanding better rule, services, and real reform.
Despite this development in the electorate, little is likely to change after the July 25 balloting. More seats will likely go to new parties in the Kurdish parliament, but Massoud Barzani is expected to be re-elected KRG president. The administration will still be run by the PUK and KDP. Their grip on education, business, government finances, and security will remain in place as well. The upcoming vote is an important step for the Kurdish region because a real opposition might be forming, but until the PUK and KDP loosen their hold on power, the status quo is likely to be preserved.
Amnesty International, “Hope and Fear, Human rights in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq,” April 2009
Anderson, Liam, “Internationalizing Iraq’s Constitutional Dilemma,” will appear in The Kurdish Policy Imperative, Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2009
Bakri, Nada, “Challengers Face an Uphill Battle in Elections in Iraq’s Kurdish North,” Washington Post, 7/19/09
Butters, Andrew Lee, “Trouble in Kurdistan,” Time, 3/17/06
Elliott, Michael and Calabresi, Massimo, “Inside The Secret Campaign To Topple Saddam,” Time, 12/2/02
Hamad, Qassim Khidhir, “kurds seek new political opposition,” Niqash, 7/16/09
Institute for War & Peace Reporting, “KDP Flexes Muscle in Dohuk,” 7/21/09
Khalil, Lydia, “Stability in Iraqi Kurdistan: Reality or Mirage?” Brookings Institution, June 2009
Mahmoud, Shakhwan, “fired and hired for their political beliefs?” Niqash, 7/20/09
Muhammad, Sardar, “KRG presidential candidates,” Niqash, 7/9/09
Simon, Joel, “CPJ alarmed by press violations in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Committee to Protect Journalists, 5/5/09