Nechirvan Barzani’s presidential pick draws mixed reactions from Iraqis

Not everyone welcome’s another Barzani presidency.
Sunday 16/06/2019
Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani during his inauguration ceremony, June 10. (DPA)
New hope? Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani during his inauguration ceremony, June 10. (DPA)

ERBIL, Iraq - The selection of Nechirvan Barzani as president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government drew mixed reactions from Iraqis in the country’s north.

During a May 28 session of the Iraqi Kurdish parliament, Barzani won 68 votes from the 81 members present in the 111-seat chamber. The vote was boycotted by major Kurdish opposition parties.

The post of Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) president had been vacant since the resignation of Barzani’s uncle, Masoud Barzani, in November 2017 following a dispute with the Iraqi government over his calling a referendum on the independence of Kurdistan. Masoud Barzani had served as KRG president since 2005.

Prior to being named president, Nechirvan Barzani was the KRG’s prime minister. That post is now filled by Masrour Barzani — Nechirvan’s cousin and Masoud’s son. Masrour Barzani had previously been the KRG security chief.

The three Barzanis are members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Kurdish region’s most powerful party. The parliament session was boycotted by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and other Kurdish opposition parties, which allege voting fraud in parliamentary elections resulted in having more KDP lawmakers in the legislative chamber.

After his swearing-in ceremony June 10, Nechirvan Barzani reached out to his rivals. “I have taken an oath to protect the unity, rights and interests of the people of Kurdistan and will do so to the best of my ability,” he said on Twitter.

KDP legislator Mohammed Shaker said the PUK had initially agreed to join ranks with the KDP.

“There was an agreement with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan to form a regional government but, at the last minute before the voting process, they did not vote for Barzani. It means they did not respect this agreement,” said Shaker, who also criticised the New Generation Movement for being “reluctant to vote” for Barzani.

“Nechirvan Barzani has a briefing on all outstanding issues between Baghdad and the Kurdistan region and he will work to settle these files, including the file of oil exports. Iraq’s constitution gives the region the right to export oil but Baghdad government does not accept it. Anyway, the central government is cooperating to solve the problems,” Shaker said.

Some observers said they were hopeful Barzani would improve living conditions in Kurdistan as well as relations with the central government.

“I hope that the newly elected president cares more about young people and improves the economic state for poor families,” said Aisha Fareed, a political activist in Erbil. “I am quite optimistic about the new transition. I think it will sustain Erbil-Baghdad relations.”

The strengthening of ties between the KRG and central government would help Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).  

“Improving the relationship between Baghdad and Erbil will be reflected positively on the improvement of the security situation in Iraq, specifically in the areas recently liberated from ISIS,” said Diyari Salih, a political analyst in Baghdad. “ISIS will exploit any gap (between Baghdad and Erbil) to make a comeback,” added Salih.

Relations between Erbil and Baghdad have been improving since Adel Abdul-Mahdi became the Iraqi prime minister last year. Relations between former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Masoud Barzani were somewhat frosty.

With new leaders in Erbil and Baghdad, observers said they were optimistic about possible warming of ties between the two sides. “I believe that Nechirvan is the right person to pave the way to (restoring ties with) Baghdad,” said Ako Kaka, a researcher in Kirkuk.

Not everyone welcome’s another Barzani presidency.

“We stand against the inheritance of the power in Kurdistan. Kurdistan’s problems will not be solved by him, nor will the (region’s) problems with Baghdad,” said Hoshyar Abdullah, a member of parliament from the Gorran Movement.

“I am just asking why the problems of the region have not been resolved before, although the ruling was by a member of the Barzani family,” said Abdullah, in a reference to Masoud Barzani.

“I do not think that Nechirvan Barzani is the right person to be the president for Kurdistan region. He has previously served as prime minister and has failed to address people’s needs — like paying the salaries of employees, improving the economic situation or providing equal distribution of wealth,” said Abdullah.

“The oil export is controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party with absence of transparency in how they export it and where the money goes,” he added.

Sarkawt Shamsulddin, a member of parliament from New Generation bloc, accused Nechirvan Barzani of smuggling Iraqi oil to Iran and Turkey. “He runs the government in a tribal way,” said Shamsulddin. 

There is a competition for power even between the Barzani cousins, Nechirvan and Masrour.

“There is a political conflict between the two (Barzani) families to control the top political positions in KRG,” said Jalal Hasan Mistaffa, a lecturer of political science at the University of Sulaimani.

The Barzanis are not the only family with a heavy political clout in Iraqi Kurdistan. The PUK is dominated by the Talabani family.