Barham Salih seen dropping nationwide political project

The Iraqi electoral arena does not seem ready to deal with a coalition bringing together Arab and Kurdish candidates.
Monday 18/01/2021
A March 2019 file photo of Iraqi President Barham Salih speaking during an interview in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP)
A March 2019 file photo of Iraqi President Barham Salih speaking during an interview in Baghdad, Iraq. (AP)

BAGHDAD - Iraqi President Barham Salih recently participated in the swearing-in ceremony of MP Ala Talabani, chair of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan bloc in the Iraqi parliament, which was considered an indication of the president's next political move.

Salih hosted a number of leaders of the Kurdistan Union and its representatives in the Iraqi parliament at his Baghdad palace to announce Talabani had been chosen as head of the Kurdish party bloc in parliament.

Chairing a parliamentary bloc is largely an organisational position without an official status. The person in charge coordinates the stances of his bloc's MPs after consulting with the party leadership.

Hosting a party activity that does not seem of great importance in the presidential palace was seen as an indication of Salih's fading political ambitions to lead a national project.

Analysts say that Salih may have believed -- due to the turbulent changes that have gripped the Iraqi scene in recent years -- that the opportunity to lead a broad political project does not present itself now, and that the safest bet is to return to his mother party and accept more minor tasks.

Salih ran for president through the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the second largest Kurdish party in Iraqi Kurdistan, which was founded and led for many years by the late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

Salih had parted roads with the National Union after disagreements with its leadership following Talabani's departure. He formed a new party to run in 2018 general elections without achieving any results. But he returned to his mother party in a deal that included abandoning his political ambitions in the Kurdish region, in exchange for becoming a candidate for president.

In winning presidency in 2018 -- after Iraq's parliament voted for him at the expense of the KDP candidate -- Salih nearly triggered a crisis between veteran Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, head of the intelligence service at the time, and current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi.

Barzani accused Kadhimi of supporting Salih by pressuring MPs in parliament to vote for the latter, after they had agreed to vote for the rival Democratic Party’s candidate, Fuad Hussein, who later became finance minister in the government of Adel Abdul-Mahdi, which was toppled by the protests, and then became foreign minister in the current government, but Barzani's accusations were denied by Kadhimi.

The fact that Salih won the votes of Baghdad MPs who had pledged to their parties to vote for Barzani's candidate was evidence of the popularity enjoyed by the Iraqi president in the Arab part of Iraq.

Since Salih left his stronghold of Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan for Baghdad to carry out his presidential duties, the Talabani family has tightened its grip on the stronghold of the National Union in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Union Party is facing a crisis of confidence in Kurdistan after it proposed making Sulaymaniyah a separate region, arguing it had been marginalised by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

Many in the Kurdistan region believe that the time is not appropriate to present such a demand and that the party should have been advised to pay more attention to the challenges facing the region and worked to secure the Kurdish people's share of the federal budget.

Opponents of this proposal consider the Union Party's goal to strike a deal with the region, especially that the announcement came during a meeting of the Kurdish parties in order to form a political delegation to go to Baghdad with the aim of firming up the share of the Kurdish people in the federal budget.

Observers say Salih's chances of returning to play a political role within the Kurdistan region have dimmed despite his attempts to further open up politically in the region. He is seen as  pinning his hopes on other options, such as attempting to take advantage of the political momentum created by the position of president in order to propose a role for himself as part of a national project that includes all Kurdish and non-Kurdish provinces of the country.

Months ago, there was a lot of speculation that Salih would align himself with Kadhimi as part of a political project spanning the entire country, as the two have been close friends for decades and have similarly liberal tendencies and close friendships with the Gulf, the West and the United States.

Many believe that an electoral alliance between Salih and Kadhimi may fare well in electoral competition, but things may not be as easy as they look.

An alliance between Salih and Kadhimi may raise the concerns of Kurdish forces, especially the Kurdistan Democratic Party and its leader Barzani, the largest political force in the region.

On Kadhimi's side, the alliance may provoke the Shia parties that agreed to nominate him to lead the government after he pledged not to run in the elections.

In addition, the Iraqi electoral arena does not seem ready to deal with a coalition bringing together Arab and Kurdish candidates, in light of its connection to acute nationalist polarisation fueled by the political and economic crises the country has endured for years.

Therefore, analysts believe, an alliance between Salih and Kadhimi may take shape after -- not before -- the elections, in the event that both participate in the elections and achieve victory.