Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Kurdistan Democratic Party About To Assume Kurdish Premiership

The long awaited transfer of power over the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) premiership is about to happen. In January 2011, it was announced that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) would be taking the prime minister’s position from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Nechirvan Barzani of the KDP who held the position previously will replace current Premier Barham Saleh. Saleh had a tough two years in office, with his PUK party facing defections, the emergence of the Change List opposition group, and demonstrations in its base province Sulaymaniya.
Nechirvan Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party is about to return as the Kurdish prime minister (KRG)
The transfer of power between the two ruling Kurdish parties has been talked about for months. In November 2011, a leading member in the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) said that the two parties would swap the premiership. Then on January 16, 2012, the KDP officially announced that Nechirvan Barzani would return to be prime minister. Members in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) wanted to hold onto the position for four years, just as Barzani did previously, but that did not happen.

Barham Saleh (KRG)
Barham Saleh originally took office in 2009 at a disadvantage, because of the change in fortunes for his PUK. Before, Saleh was the deputy premier to Nouri al-Maliki, and the number three man in the PUK hierarchy. By 2009, the PUK was losing its standing vis-a-vis the KDP. It was facing internal divisions, and defections. Then in July 2009, Kurdistan held regional parliamentary elections and the new Change List, which was formed by ex-PUK members won in Sulaymaniya, the PUK’s base. The voting solidified the KDP as the stronger of the two ruling parties. Afterward, KDP members discussed ending its 50-50 split of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) administration with the PUK, and perhaps even denying Saleh the premiership. The transfer between Nechirvan Barzani and Saleh went ahead anyway in August. The PUK and KDP had been roughly equal beforehand, and had a series of power sharing agreements, which divided power between the two in Kurdistan. As part of that, the two parties would switch the premiership every two years. The loss in standing by the PUK would change that relationship, and that put Saleh in a tough position even before he became the new KRG premier.
Thousands protested in Sulaymaniya in 2011 until the government put an end to them (Matt Willingham)
In his two years in office, Saleh faced even more challenges. There were reports that he wanted to replace Kurdish Natural Resource Minister Ashti Hawrami for example, because he disagreed with his oil policies, but he was overruled by the KDP. More importantly, in February 2011, protests broke out in Sulaymaniya. As a result, Saleh was called before the Kurdish parliament for questioning about the demonstrations, and survived a no confidence vote. (1) Saleh said that he agreed with all of the protesters’ main demands, and privately wrote a letter to Iraq’s President and PUK head Jalal Talabani saying that their party was not able to deal with the public’s outrage. Saleh allegedly offered to resign, and said that the KRG needed deep political reform and a change in ministers. The KRG ended up using force to break up the protests in April. During Saleh’s two years in office, the regional government continued to go after journalists and media outlets that criticized it as well. Saleh had a difficult two years. While he sometimes spoke of change within the Kurdistan region, the government showed no real signs that it was willing to do so. In fact, its authoritarian side was revealed when it cracked down on demonstrators, and went after the media. The KDP and PUK were not willing to let go of power or even allow citizens to openly criticize it for that long whether in the streets or in the press.

Nechirvan Barzani will now become the new KRG prime minister. There will be changes in the cabinet, but no real difference in policies. Politics are still dominated by the KDP and PUK who rely upon a huge bureaucracy, patronage system, and tribal and family ties. Even with the emergence of the Change List and other opposition parties, this hold on power has not really been shaken. When Barzani last took office in 2006 he was also facing public discontent over corruption and other issues, but did nothing substantive about it. What Barzani’s assumption of power will mean is that the KDP will solidify itself as the main Kurdish party as it will hold both the premiership and the presidency in the KRG. Otherwise, the status quo will be maintained in the region.

Saleh’s time as the KRG’s prime minister will go down as a turbulent one. His PUK lost standing in the region, which led to it losing seats in the regional parliamentary elections and protests in its base of Sulaymaniya. He was not able to reverse these trends, and gain more support for his party. Now he gives way to Nechirvan Barzani who will further entrench the KDP’s power. Rather than ushering in a new administration and new policies, Barzani will simply be more of the same.


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