At a meeting of Kurdistan Democratic Party officials on Saturday in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region in Iraq, the party sought Kurdish unity in negotiations with Baghdad.
Two weeks after the May 12 election, the Kurdish parties, of which the KDP is the largest, are trying to determine how they can continue to play a central role in the coalition building that must take place for a new government to be formed.
But Kurdish politics has been in disarray since the independence referendum last September, and critics say the current discussions with Baghdad look more like begging for a role than playing the kingmaker as Kurds once did.The KDP came in fourth in the election, worse than Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon party, Hadi al-Amiri’s Fateh alliance and Haider al-Abadi’s Victory alliance. With 25 seats in the unicameral, 329-member legislature, they have the same strength as Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition. Maliki, Amiri, Sadr and Abadi all run parties whose main supporters are Shi’ite Arabs.
Together, all these other parties could simply run the country, without the Kurds or the Sunni Arabs. But politics isn’t so simple in Iraq. Amiri’s and Maliki’s parties are very close to Iran, while Sadr’s positioned itself as a nationalist party opposed to both Iranian and American influence in Iraq. This gives the Kurds the ability to sign on with one camp or another.
The current position of the Kurds illustrates how much things have changed in the last decade and a half since Iraq was liberated from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny. In the parliamentary election of December 2005, Massoud Barzani, leading a united Kurdish list, came in second with 53 seats. Since then the myriad Kurdish parties have increasingly contested the elections on their own, with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan taking around 20 seats each time and the smaller Kurdish Islamic parties and the Gorran (Change) movement taking a dozen seats between them. The fragmentation has weakened the Kurdish bargaining power in Baghdad.
During the four years of war against ISIS, this weakened bargaining power mattered less, because Baghdad’s policies appeared to have failed Iraq and allowed ISIS to take control of a third of the country.
In those years it was common to hear Kurdish Peshmerga on the front line say that Iraq was finished as a country; how could it recover from the divisions created by ISIS. Increasing Iranian influence and the growth of sectarian militias, called the Popular Mobilization Units, appeared to show that Iraq was slipping into corruption and chaos. Kurds could point to their region in the northeast as the one stable and economically viable area.
The stability in the Kurdish region began to change after the referendum, when Baghdad took advantage of Kurdish divisions to retake Kirkuk in October 2017 from the Peshmerga, who had defended it against ISIS. Anger over late payment of salaries and accusations of corruption at the highest levels led to a series of mass protests in December.
It was in this context that Kurdish parties contested the recent election. But any thought that voters would punish the leading KDP and PUK parties did not materialize. Instead the traditional parties performed as expected. Nevertheless the bitterness from the fall of 2017 remains. After the election in Sulaimaniya, the Gorran party headquarters was fired upon.
Four smaller Kurdish parties (Gorran, Coalition for Justice and Democracy, Kurdistan Islamic Union and Kurdistan Islamic Group) met with US anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk this past Tuesday, demanding the election results be annulled due to allegations of fraud. It’s unclear why they thought McGurk could get the results changed, he’s ostensibly in Iraq to coordinate the anti-ISIS fight, but there is widespread perception that he is there to represent US interests in coalition building after the election.
The KDP and PUK pursued a different avenue. On Wednesday, Sadr met with representatives of the PUK and KDP, and on Thursday the two leading Kurdish parties met with Maliki and Amiri in Baghdad. It’s not entirely clear what came out of the meetings between the Kurdish parties; it wasn’t so long ago that Maliki and Amiri were despised in Erbil; Maliki accused of being an Iranian pawn, and Amiri’s Shi’ite militias seen as a Shia version of ISIS. But power politics now takes precedence over old biases. There are rumors that Iran would like to see a coalition without Sadr, which would include the Kurdish parties and the other Shi’ite parties. But there are also rumors that the Kurdish parties could work with Sadr to undermine Iran’s influence.
Either way, Erbil’s demands appear to be mostly about salaries and economic rights. The region exports oil and wants its public salaries paid by Baghdad. The region is holding out hope that the new US strategy on Iran will mean more support for the Kurds as a traditional ally of Washington.
The Kurdish region can only hope that it is needed as a coalition partner in Baghdad and by Washington to continue playing a vital role in Iraq.