What Iraq’s Parliamentary Elections Mean for Kurdish Politics

05/01/2018 . By Kamal Chomani

Iraqis from Basra to Duhok will cast their votes on May 12 to elect 329 members of the Iraqi parliament, in its fourth legislative term. Expectations of many Iraqis, especially in the autonomous Kurdish region, are mixed with both fear and hope. This election comes after two historical events in Iraq that will likely the country’s future and the relations between its main political groups: the end of the war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the Kurdish referendum for independence of the Kurdish-held territories on September 25 last year. In that plebiscite, Kurds voted for independence, but a strong response from Baghdad led to clashes between Iraqi forces and Kurdish Peshmerga in Kirkuk and a maintenance of the status quo ante. Significant divisions among Sunni, Shi’a, and the Kurdish parties have led to uncertainty about the post-election era—yet they could also lead to new alliances with the potential to change Iraqi and Kurdish political dynamics for the better. Such changes reshaping Kurdish and Iraqi politics are essential for ending corruption, sectarianism, and extremism, and helping Iraq embrace good governance and democracy.

A Reset for Relations with Baghdad

The failure of last year’s referendum has resulted in the most serious discussion since 2003 among Kurdish political parties about Iraq’s importance for the Kurdistan region and its people. Some parties are adopting an Iraqi agenda along with their Kurdish agenda. The Kurdish referendum in September was a lesson for many against risking the current federal system to pursue a dream of independence that may not be feasible in the short term. Kurdish parties also now better understand the geopolitics of the whole region and see that Kurdish independence would result in pressure from larger regional powers, which have their own Kurdish questions to tackle. Kurdish nationalist rhetoric in this election has not been as strong as in previous elections and has drawn the fewest supporters. While the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) has retained some nationalist rhetoric, it has also adopted an Iraqi agenda, calling for “gaining more achievements for the Kurdistan region in Baghdad”—working within the Iraqi government framework to achieve Kurdish objectives and reset relations with Baghdad following the tension caused by the September referendum. Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani went further, saying that his party, the KDP, wants to resolve through Baghdad the problem of delayed salaries for public employees, which contributed to protests in December. Similarly, Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani—son of former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani—called on members of his party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), to vote for the PUK so as to send strong Kurdish representatives to Baghdad “to correct Iraq” and strengthen the Kurdistan region. This is a huge shift for Talabani, who just seven months ago had called on members of his members to vote for independence.

Kurdish relations with Iraq had improved after the removal of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorial regime. The formation of the post-2003 Iraqi government led the Kurdistan region to be rebuilt to a great extent, with billions of dollars from the Iraqi budget flowing into the region. However, relations between Baghdad and Erbil began to deteriorate following the reelection of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki because of the attitudes of the two main Kurdish ruling parties and the sectarian attitudes of some Iraqi politicians, which eventually led to personal conflicts between Maliki and former Kurdistan region president Masoud Barzani. The deterioration in relations was also influenced by regional interference, especially from Turkey, which pushed Kurdistan region leaders—especially the current prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani—to export oil independently from Baghdad and announce economic independence of the Kurdistan Region Government. This move had serious repercussions for Kurdistan, leading to increased poverty and unemployment rates, and further worsened relations with Baghdad.

Bearing in mind Shi’a and Sunni divisions, Kurdish parties can play a major role in the next Iraqi government and help return stability to Iraq and by extension the Kurdish region only if they adopt a national agenda rather than an ethnic Kurdish one. This is the basis of two newly founded Kurdish parties—the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, led by Barham Salih, former Kurdistan region prime minister and deputy secretary-general of the PUK, and the New Generation Movement, led by media mogul and businessman Shaswar Abdel Wahid. These parties have the same vision as that of the Change Movement (Gorran) and the Kurdistan Islamic Group concerning the Kurdistan region’s relations with Baghdad. All support a united federal Iraq on the basis of the Iraqi Constitution, citizenship, and justice. This is important for Kurdish politics to retain influence in Baghdad, where some nationalist parties question whether the Kurdistan region is beneficial for Iraq. Salah al-Din Baha al-Din, secretary-general of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, has said that since the referendum was not successful, “we should return to supporting a federal system, and federalism does not mean one Iraq as one central Iraq has already disappeared.”

Potential Changes in Iraqi Government

Since the removal of Saddam’s regime, Iraqi governments have been formed on the basis of political consensus, with a Kurdish president, a Sunni speaker of parliament, and a Shi’a prime minister. However, for the first time since 2003, there are now calls for forming a majoritarian government based on the outcome of the parliamentary elections. If such calls eventually succeed, this change could reshape the political map and dynamics of Iraq and strengthen Iraqi democracy. The Iraqi parliament already has become a strong one, and a strong opposition party or bloc could further stabilize parliamentary democracy. For the Kurds, there will likely be new alliances in Baghdad that will potentially end former ethnic and sectarian ones. Moreover, new parties from Sunnis, Shi’a, and Kurdish divisions could lead to a new formation of the Iraqi cabinet that isolates partners of the government that had formerly been strong. A coalition of Iraqi Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi—if he can successfully overcome Maliki—with Gorran, the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, the Kurdistan Islamic Group, and even the PUK will weaken the KDP, which has been a major party in shaping the relations with Baghdad.

The results of the parliamentary elections will also have significant implications for Kurdish political parties and alliances ahead of the Kurdistan region’s own internal parliamentary elections, expected on September 30 this year. Kurdish parties currently hold 63 seats in the Iraqi parliament, but after losing control over disputed areas in the fallout of the referendum, they may lose 10 to 12 seats in the upcoming elections. This amounts to a catch-22 situation for the Kurds: if the Kurdish parties stay united, the KDP will still keep its majority among and seek to dominate smaller parties, which they and Iraqi parties will reject. Yet such rejection of the KDP could lead the party to seek further support from Turkey to retain its hegemony in the areas it controls. Meanwhile, while smaller parties and a significant faction of the PUK back the idea of reaching a consensus with Baghdad, the popularity of this stance depends on how Sunni and Shi’a parties decide to work following the May 12 election, since maintaining a status quo in relations with Baghdad would not attract popular Kurdish support.

Iran and Turkey are not interested in changes in Iraqi political dynamics and even full normalization of the relations between the Kurdistan region and the Iraqi government, because both countries have benefited and maneuvered the disputes and issues between Baghdad and Erbil. The United States and European Union, in contrast to Iran and Turkey, have done their best to bring Baghdad and Erbil together, though this was not completely successful. The U.S. and E.U. would benefit from working not only with the KDP and PUK, but also other Kurdish parties, following the Iraqi parliamentary elections so that the Kurdish new alternative vision to rebuild the relations with Baghdad will be in action. Improved Baghdad and Erbil relations will bring more economic, security, and political prosperity for both. Curbing or weakening Iranian and Turkish intervention in Kurdistan region politics will not be possible for the Kurdistan Regional Government and other Kurdish parties if the U.S. and E.U. do not cooperate with them more closely, as the KDP and the PUK have also maintained their political dominance through their good relations with Turkey and Iran.