Talabani’s death leaves Kurdish PUK wrestling with leadership vacuum
London- Jalal Talabani founded the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in 1975 as a secular democratic party, splitting from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani because of what he saw as the KDP’s “tribalism.”
Yet Talabani’s death October 3 in Berlin at age 83 comes with the PUK no closer to consensus over a successor than at any time in the five years since he suffered a debilitating stroke.
Talabani was a colossus in Iraqi politics. In 2005, he became the country’s first Kurdish president. Known to Kurds as “mam Jalal” (paternal uncle), Talabani led the PUK until his death through years of suppression, war, de facto autonomy after 1991, an alliance with the United States that removed Saddam Hussein in 2003 and the subsequent establishment of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) through a new constitution.
The latest — perhaps historic — development in Kurdish politics came September 25 as Iraqi Kurds voted for independence in a referendum condemned by Baghdad, Ankara, Tehran and Washington. The calling of the poll by KRG President Masoud Barzani, Mullah Mustafa’s son and KDP leader since 1979, reflected the weakening of the PUK against its rival party.
This rivalry has been intense, sometimes bloody. During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, both the PUK and KDP sometimes allied with Iran. This contributed to the severity of Saddam’s repression in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1988-90, when about 180,000 Kurds were killed. During KDP-PUK infighting from 1994-97, when 3,000 civilians died, Talabani accepted assistance from Iran and Barzani from Saddam.
Since 2003, the two parties have failed to establish a unified administration. This has left the KDP stronger in the governorates of Dohuk and Erbil and the PUK in Sulaimaniyah governorate. The Kurdish parliament has been in abeyance since 2015 when the KDP apparently blocked the speaker, a PUK member, from reaching Erbil, the regional capital. Barzani has continued as Kurdish president despite his term expiring two years ago.
One reason for the PUK’s weakening is the emergence in 2009 of Goran (Movement for Change), founded by Nawshirwan Mustafa, long-time Talabani ally and fellow founder of the PUK. From its launch, Goran, which has criticised corruption and nepotism in Kurdish politics, appealed to the young. In 2013, the most recent election, it won 24 of the Kurdish parliament’s 111 seats.
“The emergence of Goran strengthened the KDP because it undermined the PUK,” said one PUK member. “Nawshirwan should have stayed in the party and argued for change.”
Mustapha’s death earlier this year, however, showed a different conception of succession reflecting his politics. In his final months, Mustapha stood back from day-to-day leadership — partly for cancer treatment but also to give experience to others — and when he died, Goran elected a new leader, Omar Said Ali, as per its constitution.
The PUK, by contrast, struggled to maintain cohesion in Talabani’s absence. “The fact that the PUK couldn’t choose a new leader after Mam Jalal’s stroke five years ago shows this issue is hard to solve,” said Salam Abdulrahman, head of political science at Sulaimaniyah’s University of Human Development.
“There is no consensus or approval by majority among PUK members for any of the current members of the party’s leadership to replace him. One of Talabani’s two sons, Qubad and Pavel, might replace him but that won’t go without a strong opposition from other PUK leaders and from the PUK base who believe that leadership should not be inherited.”
One Kurdish official suggested the sons had been pushed forward by Talabani’s wife, Hero, herself an astute politician: “Qubad is now deputy prime minister and Pavel is a strong man in PUK. Hero has also managed to control the party finances. So my sense is that one of his sons will replace Talabani.”
Talabani told me in an interview for BBC radio in 1995 that he had intended to retire from politics in his 60s — he was then 61 — and write his memoirs. Yet he remained active until his stroke in December 2012.
In that interview he recalled his schooling in Koysanjak and how the town influenced his direction in life. “I learned politics in Koysanjak, a very active town,” Talabani said. “It was the town of Hajji Qadir Koyi, the first Kurdish nationalist poet.”
Koyi advocated Kurdish unity and independence as early as the 1880s and his criticisms of traditional leaders probably shaped Talabani’s later disquiet with Mullah Mustafa Barzani and his own decision to establish the PUK.
First and foremost, Talabani was a Kurdish nationalist but he was always open to dialogue with other Iraqis. No doubt he would argue the KRG has been a positive example of peaceful development both for Kurds elsewhere and their governments.
No doubt Talabani would present his life as a struggle for Kurdish rights through a secular party seeking a democracy. Whether the PUK can take that legacy forward remains to be seen.