The September 2013 Kurdish parliamentary elections were a sea change for the region’s politics. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) that had co-ruled the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) since the 1990s came in third place. Now it is facing all kinds of questions. The immediate one is whether it will participate in the new government or not, but the larger one is whether it can recover from such a devastating loss.
The fallout from the vote was immediately felt by the Patriotic Union. A few days after the polls were closed its politburo accepted that it was heading for defeat. Likewise deputy secretary general of the party Barham Saleh said that the PUK had to accept the voters’ will, while KRG Vice President Kosurt Rasul stated that he and Saleh took responsibility for the loss. That view was not shared by all their brethren. A leading member of the party claimed that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) who came in first place had cheated in the election and that was why the PUK finished third. Then some armed PUK followers went into the streets, claimed they won, stormed a vote counting center, and tried to change the ballots in Sulaymaniya City. Those two responses, acceptance and denial showed the deep divisions within the party. Being in power for over 20 years, many supporters and party officials could not believe that it suffered such a devastating defeat. Others saw the writing on the wall, and wanted the loyalists to accept the fact that the PUK had lost its standing with the public. Those differing views are still playing out within the leadership.
Talabani’s wife Hero Ibrahim Ahmed appears to be running many of the PUK’s top portfolios in her husband’s absence (PlanetRulers)
The PUK has been trying to deal with its defeat and what to do about it, but it may not be ready for any real changes, which could lead to its eventual dissolution. First, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, the wife of party leader Iraq President Jalal Talabani, resigned as head of the PUK’s office in Sulaymaniya. However that was a symbolic act as she still remains on the politburo and controls important portfolios such as finance, intelligence, and the peshmerga. As a sign of dissatisfaction with the move the general secretary of the party’s central organization Adel Murad called for a wholesale change in the leadership claiming that they were corrupt and harming the organization. Second, four PUK members were tasked with coming up with a report on the party’s leadership problems, and other factors that led to its defeat. The most glaring one is that Talabani has been out of the country since December 2012 when he suffered a serious stroke. The PUK has been rudderless since then. Third, there are increasing reports that the party might break apart. Before the vote some members were contemplating leaving, and afterward there was a story that Barham Saleh was contemplating forming his own political organization. To support the latter allegation Saleh and Hero got into a yelling match at a party meeting after the election, and the differences between the two have supposedly increased since then. Fourth, the PUK held a plenum on October 10, which did not last very long, and was only a step towards calling a party congress for January 31, 2014. The rank and file is said to be pushing for leadership changes, but it appears that the PUK has chosen a middle path of holding a series of conferences instead. The question is whether the up coming congress will lead to anything substantive. Talabani is still ill and out of the country, while Hero appears to be largely in control of many of the day to day activities. The PUK has done nothing about this void at the top, and may not be ready to do so until Talabani passes away. There is also the question of its message. The PUK was originally created in opposition to the KDP’s nepotism and tribalism, and promoted socialism. Today, the KDP has oil deals, is attempting to organize and assist Syria’s Kurds, and points to the booming development plans in the major cities as signs of its success. In comparison, the most significant move the PUK made recently was to back a two year extension for KDP head and regional President Massoud Barzani despite its questionable legality. The Patriotic Union therefore no longer has a real ideology or anything to point to that would maintain its base. It is just a personal vehicle for Talabani and his family, which was why it broke away from the KDP in the first place.
The last issue that the organization has to deal with is whether it will join the new Kurdish government. Some want to maintain the status quo and just form a government with the KDP as all the previous KRG administrations have been. Others fear that the KDP will dominate the government, and the PUK will simply be window dressing, which will lead to its further decline. That has led for calls for the group to move into the opposition. A last faction has called for a broad based government that includes most if not all of the opposition. Tehran may be pushing this, because it allegedly wants the PUK and opposition Change List to cooperate so that Iran can maintain its influence in the KRG. Representatives to the two parties are supposed to be travelling to Iran soon. How the party decides to participate in the next government may be just as important as resolving its internal differences. The KDP has said that it wants to become the majority party in Kurdistan. It failed to achieve that this year, but it has become the dominant list. Its power sharing agreement with the PUK, which it said it wants to maintain is just a way to ensure its continued control over the administration. If the PUK decides to uphold that alliance it will definitely be the junior partner. It needs to differentiate itself as part of its program to rehabilitate its image with the electorate. Simply continuing with the status quo will not do that. Going into the opposition might be the way to achieve that, but that would mean giving up all the positions of power and access to all the money and patronage that comes along with that something the old guard is unlikely to want to give up.
The PUK is in desperate need of a make over. Its leadership situation is unstable. It has lost its appeal to its base. It does not know what stance it will take towards the next ruling coalition. Given the delicate situation the party finds itself in and the large gaps between the different factions within it even making the right decision on one or two matters may not be enough to save it. In the worst-case scenario it may not be able to do anything because of Talabani’s absence, and witness its own demise. The PUK really is at the brink, and staring into the abyss.
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