Kurdistan region still divided after 29 years

June 27, 2019 22:13
Kurdistan region still divided after 29 years

KURDISTAN DEMOCRATIC Party leader Masoud Barzani shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote during parliamentary elections in the semi-autonomous region on the outskirts of Erbil, Iraq, on September 30.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Negotiations for the next cabinet of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have lasted longer than any since 2005. Despite numerous meetings and agreements, the future of the eighth cabinet is still vague. Many party leaders, political figures and influential people have threatened a dual administration if they don’t get their share in the government.

After almost three months, former Iraqi Kurdistan Region president Masoud Barzani has warned that the region will no longer wait to form a government. Following some 270 meetings, negotiations still continue. Even though Barzani is perceived as the leader of all Kurdistan, he was criticized for being “local” instead of “national.” Such situations have occurred throughout history, but in my part of the world, we are far behind history.

KRG Council of Ministers legal adviser Dr. Amanj Raheem said the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) monetary policy is separate from that of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) within the KRG. Coupled with fragmented armed forces, these bodies formed in Iraqi Kurdistan are not governments, he said, but a confederation between the PUK and the KDP. Both have their own armed forces, intelligence networks, territory and diplomatic relations.

Virtually all Kurdish leaders agree that an effective, functional and extensive government within the region needs the real participation of those two parties and, to a lesser extent, other parties. The cities that are dominated by a party which has not participated in the government is neglected by the local city officials who ignore the orders from the government. Fazil Mirani, chief of the executive body of the KDP political bureau, said no one is extra, and that everyone is wanted in the government.

It is worth mentioning that the new government does not reflect the geographic, economic, military or social divisions within the KRG. The majority of these parties, especially the PUK, are deeply unsatisfied with the government. 

When KRG Deputy Prime Minister and senior PUK leader Qubad Talabani congratulated KRG President Nechirvan Barzani on his new position, many within his party started chastising him for being pro-KDP. Unfortunately, this shows how public perception sees the KDP as a foreign force, not a party that shares almost everything with them, and that the survival and well-being of everyone is tied to the stability of the KRG and not their parties.

Moreover, the KDP has stated that parties should be dealt with in accordance to their seats in the assembly. Nonetheless, PUK Politburo member Saadi Pira said elections are not mathematics, something that has also being continuously reiterated by PUK leaders. The PUK secured 22 of 111 seats, and wants to participate in the government according to its economic and military might, which puts it on par with the KDP. Pira’s statement is not fresh. It was practiced by the KDP following the 2013 election, when it secured only 38 seats but held top positions within the KRG, including president, prime minister and head of the Security Council.

The KDP thinks that the divisions in the PUK and its loss of control over Kirkuk have made it the only force capable of ruling the KRG. Thus, they do not view the PUK as an equal and real partner.

THE KDP-controlled areas of Erbil and the capital Duhok are more developed than Sulaiminiyah and Halabja, which are controlled by the PUK. Therefore, the current leadership of the KDP has to balance services and budgets in the different regions of Kurdistan, otherwise the party would be deemed local. That would strengthen the perception that the region is divided and that the PUK and KDP only serve their respective regions.

Previous cabinets were occupied by lower- or mid-level party members, for instance. Many ministers of both the PUK and KDP were ordinary or senior party cadres who had to respond to their leadership, effectively giving a huge leverage to the parties over the government, and major decisions were made in the politburo of the parties, not in the government branches. Even though the KRG has a defense ministry (the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs), and while the president of Kurdistan is the chief of the armed forces, the region’s military is divided between the PUK, KDP and other traditional parties. Many politicians have their own security forces and military battalions, which made it difficult for the government to exercise its power. As a result, if an expansive government forms, we might see a government that only serves the interest of the elites, deepening its roots in the government and legitimizing its forces.

Masrour Barzani (Masoud’s son) is now prime minister-designate, and one of the strongest second-generation leaders within the KDP. Masrour controls much of KDP’s armed forces and intelligence, having been head of the Security Council of Kurdistan in the last cabinet. Masrour is also the de facto heir of Masoud, which has given him much power within KDP. Being prime minister would give plenty of power to the executive body of the government. The government can much easier exercise its power especially in the areas of Kurdistan that are under heavy influence of the KDP.

 Masrour has filled his cabinet will his loyal friends, which will give him more leverage over the government, especially when the crucial ministries such as Natural Resources, Interior, Finance and Economy and Foreign Relations will all be occupied by KDP members.

This might put other parties in a tough position since their voices might easily be ignored, as happened in previous cabinets that were not very effective and strong. The smaller parties control only one or two ministries. They were complaining that they could not do anything since the real power was vested in the KDP first and the PUK second. This might obviously pave the way for further divisions within the KRG if the parties cannot find their way within the government.

Moreover, due to lack of a centralized decision-making process, the PUK has found itself in a quagmire. For instance, due to its disagreement over a candidate for the speaker of the parliament, some PUK members have suggested that the two candidates – Begard Talabani and Riwaz Fayaq, both women – share the position, with each one occupying the post for two years.

This shows how strong the next cabinet might be. Since senior members of both parties strive to occupy the top positions within the government, it is worth mentioning that previously, politburo members could have their say over any person in the government, including the prime minister.

The strength of the government is not being used to make a leap forward, rather, it is only legitimizing oligarchic rule, transitioning politicians from party to government roles. As a result, the parties are increasingly viewed by the people as corrupt and a hindrance to development of the region.

IT IS no surprise that the major industries – such as pharmaceuticals, petroleum, alcohol, cigarettes, beverages, petrochemical industries and so on – are all controlled by party factions and ruling families. Nonetheless, after the capture of Kirkuk by the Popular Mobilization Forces and the resultant decline in the petroleum business, the ruling families have moved to other parts of the economy, such as markets and schools. There have been attempts to privatize the education and health systems. One of the reasons that all political parties – except for the New Generation Party – participate in the government is because they obtain their revenues from government. 

There have recently been many conferences held about privatizing the lucrative sectors to justify party control of the economy. Leaders argue that privatization means better production. In fact, the next government, which is going to include almost every political force in the country, is probably going to privatize the lucrative parts of the economy, and further establish their roots in the government. This can only result in furthering a corrupt oligarchy.

This, coupled with high unemployment, might result in a brain drain and youth migration to Europe. Despite the government’s efforts – which brought the wage system to its normal stages – and the threat of ISIS becoming obsolete, the youth still think that the KRG cannot meet their demands. On June 17, a 17-year-old high school student set off to Turkey and from there to Europe. When I asked him why he left his family behind, he answered that there is no hope. “Even if I graduate, I still have to work for foreign companies. Why not going to Europe and serve their companies there?

This new generation is not highly educated and lacks skills to serve in an economy dominated by politicians, yet they do not want low-paying jobs.

The next cabinet of the KRG will be certainly overwhelmed by KDP for two reasons: First, in the last cabinet, the KDP did not have 50% of the votes, but still secured top positions within government, and major political and economic decisions were made by the KDP. Second, in 2018, the KDP secured 45 parliamentary seats, along with its allies which had 11 seats. Combined, it includes smaller parties and minorities such as Christians, Yazidis and Assyrians. This would legitimize the KDP’s hold on power in the KRG and effectively weaken the PUK. This would result in an imbalance that would likely make the government highly ineffective in the Green Zone. Recently, Barzani visited Baghdad and Ankara, only including KDP members in the delegations. This will obviously embolden the division between the PUK and KDP.

The next government might not be deployed in the service of the people but rather in the narrow interest of the elites who think locally and don’t know that the KRG is the only formally recognized entity that can protect the Kurds. Yes, we are behind history. Many of our leaders think securing one or two ministries or some amount of money is worth sacrificing the stability of the KRG.

They think their ends justify the means, yet they don’t recognize the real ends. This is no longer 14th-century Italy. The world has changed.

The author is a writer and editor with a special interest in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Middle East.

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