Iraq’s fifth parliament since the American invasion of 2003 held its first session on January 9, 2022. Its representatives were those chosen in an early election on October 10, 2021 when the Sadrists won the largest number of seats (73 out of 329) and thus are expected to control the formation of the country’s future government. Currently, the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi acts in a caretaker’s capacity.
Despite major fragmentations and divisions, the parliament voted for the reappointment of its current speaker, Mohammed al-Halbousi, through an agreement between the Sadrist movement, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the speaker’s Taqaddum Party (which is allied with the Azm Party, headed by former rival Khamis al-Khanjar). Halbousi’s reelection was challenged by two members of parliament but the challenge was rejected by Iraq’s Federal Supreme Court. To be sure, the court’s decision ratified the election of Halbousi for another term as well as his two deputies. In Iraq’s post-2003 consociational political order, the premiership is reserved for the Shia, the speakership of parliament for the Sunnis, and the presidency for the Kurds. Despite a short-lived Sunni rivalry between Halbousi and Azm Party leader Khanjar, an alliance was formed between the two to guarantee a significant Sunni voice in the upcoming period. Halbousi was the first Sunni speaker to be reelected for a second term since 2003.
The next stage in the political process is the election of the president of the republic, which is the main Kurdish share of Iraq’s federal government.
The next stage in the political process is the election of the president of the republic, which is the main Kurdish share of Iraq’s federal government. The official procedure requires the election of the president within 30 days of the speaker’s election. Fifteen days after the presidential election, which this time fell on February 7, 2022, he or she must assign the parliament’s largest bloc to name a prime minister, who then has 30 days to form a cabinet that must receive a parliamentary vote of confidence. But February 7 came and went without a parliamentary session because of a boycott by a large majority of members, including the Sadrists, who had objections to a main contender, former Foreign and Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who is accused of corruption. There is no doubt that this postponement will add uncertainty to the Iraqi political process and to the current agreement between the Sadrists, the KDP, and the Taqaddum-Azm accord.
The Kurdish Customary Agreement
An unofficial agreement between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) divides political power in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq. The KDP maintains the presidency of the KRG as well as some ministries in Baghdad, while the PUK is allotted Iraq’s presidency. Between 2005 and 2017, KDP leader Masoud Barzani was president of the KRG while PUK leader Jalal Talabani held the Iraqi presidency from 2005 to 2014.
However, this time around, the KDP is trying to challenge the common post-2003 political custom between the two rivals by claiming both the Iraqi federal presidency and presidency of the KRG. The KDP’s confidence in challenging the balance of power with PUK is motivated by its recent electoral gains (in contrast to the PUK, which did poorly in the election) and its new partnership with the Sadrists and the Taqaddum-Azm coalition. If the KDP succeeds in singly holding the federal presidency without any compromise with—or consideration for—the PUK, then Kurdish power dynamics in both Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government will witness a major shift.
The KDP’s confidence in challenging the balance of power with PUK is motivated by its recent electoral gains and its new partnership with the Sadrists and the Taqaddum-Azm coalition.
The PUK is pushing for the reelection of current president Barham Salih. The KDP is trying to nominate Hoshyar Zebari, who was sacked from his finance position after facing a no-confidence motion from parliament over allegations of corruption. Zebari is Masoud Barzani’s uncle. Beyond KDP’s attempt to take the presidency and Masoud Barzani’s alleged mistrust of Salih, some argue that Barzani wants to place Zebari back on the political stage to compensate for the political scandal and humiliation faced by both Zebari and KDP during his dismissal. This is indeed a reflection of how Iraqi Kurdish politics is enormously personal.
The Lead-up to KDP’s Rise and PUK’s Fall
The Kurds had initially agreed not to take part during the early stages of the intra-Shia rift between the Sadrist movement and the Shia Coordination Framework (CF)—a collection of pro-Iran parties and militias. Yet the PUK was reportedly surprised to be informed about a KDP-Sadrist agreement regarding the presidency and other issues. This is not the first collaboration between KDP leader Barzani and Sadrist leader Muqtada al-Sadr, as both are powerful veterans of Iraq’s political scene. However, their current alliance is heavily motivated by both of their electoral victories, which may allow each of them to unilaterally dominate the political dynamics of their respective Shia and Kurdish groups. It is noteworthy that this is not KDP’s first attempt to take over the Iraqi presidency from PUK. In 2018, KDP proposed Fuad Hussein (the current foreign minister) against Barham Salih for the presidential position, yet the latter won and became Iraq’s president.
The duopoly between the KDP and PUK has created an authoritarian political process in Iraqi Kurdistan where the two dominate and control the media, economy, security, and governmental structure. Many Kurdish civil society actors and activists accuse both KDP and PUK of working only in their parties’ political interests, saying that claims to defend the Kurdish right to self-determination constitute political exploitation to mobilize the masses—that is, that their “brotherly” alliance in Baghdad is arguably nothing more than a strategic attempt to guarantee as many gains as possible during negotiations for government formation with the traditional Shia and Sunni Arab political parties. While infrastructure development and security have seen more progress in the Kurdish region than the rest of Iraq, freedom of speech and political opportunities are still limited by the two-party political system in the KRG.
While infrastructure development and security have seen more progress in the Kurdish region than the rest of Iraq, freedom of speech and political opportunities are still limited by the two-party political system in the KRG.
Troubles within the PUK over the last 15 years helped to lead to this imbalance of power and the appearance that it is losing to the KDP. In 2009, Nawshirwan Mustafa led a breakout group from the party known as the Gorran (Change) Movement, which won 25 out of 111 parliamentary seats in Kurdistan during the elections of the same year in PUK-dominated areas of Sulaymaniyah. Jalal Talabani’s passing in 2017 also presented a major challenge to a party that was long shadowed by his guidance and direction; intra-PUK rivalries even emerged out of the Talabani household itself.
Although the KDP-sponsored independence referendum in 2017 backfired, it increased the party’s popularity among the Kurds. This is in contrast to the sharp decrease in PUK’s supporters as it was accused of handing over the disputed Kirkuk governorate to the Iraqi armed forces and the Shia-led Popular Mobilization Forces in the referendum’s aftermath. Conflicting statements from various PUK officials regarding the referendum also reflected the party’s divisions and doubts about whether it could maintain the balance of power and power-sharing agreement with KDP.
The PUK’s co-presidency arrangement between Bafel Jalal Talabani and Lahur Talabani was an attempt to end their power rivalry by the party’s congress during December 2019 and February 2020, following the power vacuum caused by Jalal Talabani’s death. However, the congress arguably failed to address further fragmentations which included another faction led by none other than President Barham Salih and Kosret Ali, a leading PUK figure.
Lahur is known for representing PUK’s most lenient position toward Iran, which paved the way for accusing him of handing Kirkuk to Baghdad following the referendum. This damaged Lahur’s relationship with Masoud Barzani and KDP, leading the former to conduct a major anti-KDP campaign through media and public appearances. Lahur highlighted KDP’s mismanagement in the KRG and its attempts to influence PUK decision-making and, most importantly, he called on his party to seek more autonomy from KDP-controlled Irbil.
From a distance, a PUK that is divided seems favorable to KDP; yet on closer inspection, PUK’s divisions also present a wider challenge. Regardless of KDP’s rivalry with PUK, it still depends on PUK in many security responsibilities in areas such as Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk. Moreover, KDP prefers an opposition from its duopoly partner PUK, instead of other emerging groupings such as the Gorran Movement and an upstart party, the New Generation Movement—NGM, led by anti-establishment figure and businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid.
Like the new parties and individuals emerging from the Tishreen protest movement in Baghdad and the southern provinces, such as Imtidad and several independent lawmakers, the KDP-PUK duopoly is facing growing opposition in NGM. Abdulwahid is a loud opposition voice that is critical of the unfavorable records of KDP and PUK regarding women’s rights, unemployment, limited freedom of speech, corruption, and the political exploitation of minorities in the Kurdish region.
The NGM leader Abdulwahid owns the prominent media network NRT (Nalia Radio and Television) News, through which he has managed to challenge establishment-controlled media outlets such as Rudaw. NGM’s success is measured by the nine seats it won in the latest polls, in contrast to only four seats in the 2018 elections. Following the election’s results, a coalition was formed between NGM, Imtidad, and other independent candidates, known as the “Alliance for the People.” Such cross-sectarian alliances among both the traditional and small parties (despite their distinct intentions and strategies) reflect post-2003 Iraq’s transition from identity politics to issue politics, particularly in consideration of Tishreen’s influence on the Iraqi political discourse.
Intragroup rivalries among the Shia and the Kurds in the post-election period have intensified, just as the Sunni bloc of Halbousi’s Taqaddum and Khanjar’s Azm grew stronger and more unified.
Additionally, intragroup rivalries among the Shia and the Kurds in the post-election period have intensified, just as the Sunni bloc of Halbousi’s Taqaddum and Khanjar’s Azm grew stronger and more unified. It is unclear whether the cross-sectarian coalitions are an example of the political parties’ attempts to attract civil society actors, or if they reflect a natural breakup of the variety and complex intragroup ideologies and political and personal interests.
The popular cross-sectarian alliance between the Sadrists and Sunnis, which proved their ability to agree on forming a majority (rather than a consensus) government, took its first steps during the reelection of Halbousi. The alliance apparently did not only cause an intra-Shia rift between the Sadrists and the Shia Coordination Framework, but it also further fragmented the Kurdish position that was unified in every federal government formation in Baghdad.
Both the Sadrist movement and KDP are trying to gain the ultimate political control of their respective communities: Shia and Kurds. Considering the on-the-ground influence and historical political relations and influences that both PUK and CF enjoy, their electoral defeat is what the Sadrists and KDP are betting on. However, in Iraq’s post-2003 political order, elections alone do not determine the government’s formation.
The Future of the KDP-PUK Relationship
A few days prior to the February 7 session to elect the president, the Sadrist leader Muqtada al-Sadr called on his followers to boycott the session and encouraged other members of parliament not to vote for Hoshyar Zebari if he did not meet the required “standards” of probity and honesty. The Sadrists had campaigned on a platform of fighting corruption and official malfeasance, and Zebari had a checkered record. Amid speculations about the future of the tripartite alliance between Sadr, KDP, and Taqaddum-Azm, the Federal Supreme Court’s suspension of Zebari’s presidential bid may very well have given the Sadrists the opportunity to back away from any commitment they might have had to support Zebari. On the other hand, an investigation into his activities may very well prove him innocent of charges of corruption. Moreover, the fact that the session was also boycotted by the largest blocs in parliament gives the Sadrists political cover and indicates that the temporary deadlock regarding the presidency is being affected by political actors beyond the Kurdish rivalry.
Regardless of the winner of the Zebari-Salih contest for the presidency, the intensity of the schism caused by proposing different presidential candidates between the two Kurdish rivals is the worst since the establishment of the current political system. If Zebari wins, KDP would enter a new era where it would have to protect its role as the ultimate Kurdish ruler of Iraq; for its part, PUK would eventually seek alternatives and new ways to restructure its strategic relations domestically and regionally to regain its status. If Salih wins, PUK would have to find new weaknesses within KDP’s regional administration and invest in more domestic and regional guarantees to keep its customary federal share.