Iraqi Kurdistan edges towards new government

Nechirvan Barzani, the KRG prime minister, is expected to win the presidency after the tripartite agreement.
Sunday 19/05/2019
Nechirvan Barzani, deputy leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, casts his vote at a polling station in Erbil, last September. (Reuters)
Challenges ahead. Nechirvan Barzani, deputy leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, casts his vote at a polling station in Erbil, last September. (Reuters)

LONDON - More than seven months after elections in Iraqi Kurdistan, the two largest parties announced they reached an understanding to break the political impasse in forming the next Kurdistan Regional Government.

Nechirvan Barzani, deputy leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) acting leader, Kosrat Rasul, signed an agreement May 5.

Rasul called the agreement historic and a KDP spokesman voiced hope that the cabinet formation process could begin within days. The Gorran (Change) Movement will join the government, having signed an agreement with the KDP in February.

The KDP, the party of Masoud Barzani, won 45 of 111 seats in the elections September 30, 2018. The PUK and Gorran picked up 21 and 12 seats, respectively.

“This new agreement is a major development,” said Mohammed Shareef, a lecturer at the University of Sulaymaniyah.

Sulaymaniyah Governor Haval Abubakir, a member of Gorran, stressed the need to establish a “transparent government… on the basis of accountability” after what he described as catastrophic developments that had affected the Kurdistan region over the last three years.

Abubakir said the agreement “has become an obligation” not to let only one party participate in establishing the government “because we are at a risky stage of governance in Kurdistan.”

On May 8, the regional parliament passed a bill to reactivate the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) presidency, which had been left vacant since Masoud Barzani stepped down in November after a failed independence referendum in 2017. The bill stipulates that the president would, for the first time, be elected by parliament, a key demand by Gorran.

Nechirvan Barzani, the KRG prime minister, is expected to win the presidency after the tripartite agreement. “Whether or not there is another candidate, next week Nechirvan Barzani will be elected president,” Hevidar Ahmed, a member of the KDP parliamentary bloc, said May 13.

The KDP has nominated Masrour Barzani, the intelligence chief and son of Masoud Barzani, to succeed his cousin as prime minister of the semi-autonomous region.

The presidency bill, which also created a second vice-presidential post, faced criticism by opposition parties, which said the amendments granted too much power to the president without sufficient parliamentary oversight. Objections also came from within Gorran. In a statement, party members said the leadership had bowed “to sultanism, absolutism and the absolute power of the presidency.”

The new government, observers said, will face many challenges. Many of which hark back to the establishment of the first Iraqi Kurdish government in the early 1990s, said Kamal Chomani, a Kurdish political analyst and non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, including unification of the security forces.

“The forces are deeply politicised to an extent that some forces are loyal not only to the political parties but to political figures,” he said.

Despite international support to create a national force, Chomani said he was pessimistic, arguing that the KDP’s and PUK’s existence was “mainly connected to holding a grip over their militias so as to deter each other and crack down on any dissent.”

Shareef said he saw maintaining and improving relations with Baghdad as “the main challenge for the KRG,” stating that relations have been “hugely strained” since 2014. Key issues in that regard, he said, are the Kurdistan region’s share of the federal budget, Article 140 (which refers to disputed territories such as Kirkuk) and the salaries of civil servants.

The future of Iraq’s disputed territories remains a sticking point in relations with Baghdad. Some media reports said the PUK and KDP had agreed to appoint a joint candidate for the position of governor in Kirkuk. Peshmerga units took over large parts of the province when Islamic State militants stormed across northern Iraq. However, after the 2017 independence referendum caused heightened tensions with Baghdad, security forces tied to the federal government retook Kirkuk.

Apart from the disputed territories, the government will also have to deal with a financial crisis and widespread youth unemployment in the region, said Chomani. He estimated that unemployment among young people was 40-50%. This poses a risk for the new government as youth unemployment “may be exploited by extremist groups” and could trigger demonstrations.

Abubakir said it was “essential” for the government to overcome the economic crisis and aim to create more job and investment opportunities as well as provide services to the people.

Shareef said the fact that the three main parties went through individual crises before signing the agreement was having a positive effect, allowing elites to develop a better understanding of the difficulties of governance and the dissatisfaction of constituents.

Chomani warned that Masrour Barzani, expected to become prime minister, has his roots in the security apparatus and has been known for his crackdown on dissent. The Democracy and Human Rights Development Centre, a local human rights organisation, said in a report that human rights violations had increased over the last year.

Observers said it is unlikely that a new cabinet will be announced before the end of Ramadan.