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Iraqi Kurdistan’s Regional Elections Test a Brittle Status Quo
Iraqi Kurdistan’s Regional Elections Test a Brittle Status Quo
A Way Out of the Iraqi Impasse
A Way Out of the Iraqi Impasse
A member of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces casts his vote at a polling station in Sulaimaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan, on 28 September 2018. Shwan Mohammed/AFP
Q&A / Middle East & North Africa

Iraqi Kurdistan’s Regional Elections Test a Brittle Status Quo

The fallout continues to settle after Iraqi Kurdistan’s fraught independence referendum one year ago. In this Q&A, our Iraq Senior Adviser Maria Fantappie surveys the political landscape ahead of the first regional legislative elections since the plebiscite.

What’s at stake in the 30 September elections?

Voters in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq will choose the 111 members of the Kurdistan National Assembly, in the fourth election since the body was founded in 1992 and the first since the Kurdish independence referendum on 25 September 2017. At stake, as usual, is the equilibrium between Iraqi Kurdistan’s dominant political parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This time, however, the fate of the PUK also hangs in the balance, as it faces a challenge from opposition rivals, the Gorran and New Generation movements.

At issue is also the relationship of the Kurdish region’s institutions – the Assembly, the judiciary and the executive, including the presidency – to the KDP and PUK. These institutions have long been dependent on the twin parties, and as long as that remains the case, elections not only shift the balance of power between the two but also transform these institutions’ role in the region’s political system.

The main parties’ duopoly is buffeted by the shock waves of the backlash to the 2017 referendum.

The main parties’ duopoly is also now buffeted by the shock waves of the backlash to the 2017 referendum, in which more than 90 per cent of participants voted for independence from Iraq. In response, the Iraqi government sent its troops into oil-rich Kirkuk and other disputed territories – lands claimed by both Baghdad and the Kurdistan regional government – which the Kurdish parties’ security forces had previously controlled. The territorial losses pitted the KDP and PUK against each other and divided each party internally.

Yet, all things considered, the KDP and PUK remain indispensable to one another, and the KDP in particular is still a favourite in the 30 September contest.

Who are the main parties competing, and how cohesive are they?

Old and new players are competing. Though it was mainly responsible for the referendum and the backlash it provoked, the KDP has weathered its internal disputes well. Masoud Barzani, who served as the region’s president from 2005 to 2017 and remains KDP leader, has used the proven method of managing divisions between senior party members within its family-based structure by assigning them to security and administrative posts. The KDP has no major competitors in its territorial strongholds, the Erbil and Dohuk provinces, and holds its own against the PUK in Suleimaniya province. In the elections, the KDP aspires to strengthen its grip on the regional government, reverse the political and territorial losses of 2017, and lead the Kurdish region out of the post-referendum crisis.

The PUK, on the other hand, has faced serious difficulties in containing its divisions. After its co-founder Jalal Talabani died in 2017, about a week after the referendum, the party has lacked a unifying figure. Instead, its leadership has fractured along lines of personal and family rivalries, creating multiple decision-making poles. The PUK’s splintering may aid the KDP in its aspiration to consolidate its hold on the region’s institutions. It may also benefit the PUK’s other rivals in Suleimaniya, the only province where the PUK still enjoys significant support. But Gorran, which split off from the PUK in 2009 in opposition to the KDP-PUK duopoly, faces an internal crisis of its own following the 2017 death of its founding leader, Nowshirwan Mustafa. This leaves New Generation, a movement founded by Shaswar Abdulwahid, which has taken in Gorran defectors.

How has the political landscape changed since the referendum?

The KDP-PUK strategic partnership, a power-sharing deal between Barzani and Talabani, has framed the Kurdish region’s political system for more than a decade. Since the KDP and PUK each maintain their own security forces in their respective areas of control, this partnership is paramount to sustaining governance. But the two parties’ arrangement was already in crisis after the 2013 Assembly elections, due to the PUK’s poor showing, and it totally unravelled after the referendum and Talabani’s death, with each blaming the other for the severity of the backlash from Baghdad. The PUK’s decline and the KDP’s ambitions are challenging this arrangement, which kept the region in balance internally as well as with its neighbours, Turkey and Iran.

Gorran, which has been around for ten years, has yet to find its place in the new KDP-dominated landscape. It has been unable to replace the PUK as the KDP’s strategic partner in Suleimaniya. In 2014, it agreed to participate in government, but then quit in protest two years later, costing itself credibility as both an opposition force and a potential ruling party. This background explains the emergence of New Generation as an anti-establishment movement giving voice to popular disillusionment with the political leadership and the governing system as a whole; effectively, it has been able to pick up open support in Suleimaniya only.

Kurdistan’s institutions also have suffered amid the turmoil. The KDP’s dispute with Gorran over the extralegal extension of Barzani’s presidency paralysed the Assembly, which has been unable to convene since 2015. The regional government has been compelled to operate with six acting ministers since Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic Group withdrew their ministers from the cabinet, including those holding the Peshmerga (defence) and finance portfolios. And the region has been without a president since Barzani stepped down following the referendum debacle, although he remains the ultimate arbiter behind the scenes as KDP leader.

Voters are equally dissatisfied with both parties.

How strong is the opposition to the KDP and PUK?

Voters are equally dissatisfied with both parties. Yet the KDP faces less opposition in Erbil and Dohuk than the PUK does in Suleimaniya. The KDP’s cohesion has helped it maintain support through a mix of co-optation and control, which has shrunk the space for genuine political competition. Its control over resource flows, public finances and employment has made many voters dependent on it for their livelihood. Opposition to its rule manifests itself through non-participation rather than voting for another party.

The PUK has been unable to use a similar strategy in Suleimaniya because of its fragmentation: rival politicians share and compete for key economic and security portfolios. This fragmentation leaves margins within which opposition groups can thrive.

Yet it is unclear if opposition parties in Suleimaniya can do more than just voice discontent. Groups such as New Generation, like Gorran and the Coalition for Justice and Democracy before it, may actually turn out to be useful for the ruling establishment. With its inflammatory rhetoric and undefined ideas for reform, New Generation is channelling anger on the streets and creating the appearance of open democratic debate without posing a real challenge to the twin parties and the political system they have built. Independent journalists and intellectuals have reproached opposition parties for playing what they call a farcical game, one these parties are fated to lose because – the critics claim – elections are not free and fair and the KDP-PUK duopoly has an iron grip on the region’s institutions. Kurdish youth widely share this sentiment. Alienation from politics and distrust of elections encourages people to acquiesce in the status quo and merely seek their share of the top-down wealth distribution through party patronage.

Do people still have confidence in elections in the wake of fraud allegations during Iraq’s parliamentary polls in May?

Trust in elections is at its lowest point in Iraqi Kurdistan’s modern history. The region’s parliamentary system helped ensure a degree of respect for democratic institutions, mechanisms and practices. Since the fall of the Baathist regime, the region has held three parliamentary elections (in 2005, 2009 and 2013), two rounds of provincial and local elections (in 2005 and 2013), and a presidential election (in 2009). (It also held elections during the period 1991-2003, when it was independent all but in name, but virtually cut off from the outside world, including Baghdad. Iraq in those years was under comprehensive UN sanctions, and the Baathist regime imposed a second, internal embargo upon the three majority-Kurdish provinces.) Despite its shortcomings in passing legislation, the Assembly was an effective platform for multi-party debate and oversight over the executive. The region had a vibrant civil society that mobilised in 2011 – in tune with protesters throughout the Middle East and North Africa – to protest KDP-PUK control over public institutions, denounce top-level corruption and demand better governance.

The war against the Islamic State in 2014-2017 weakened Iraqi Kurdistan’s young democratic institutions. The failure of popular uprisings in the Middle East, the subsequent geopolitical turmoil and the outcome of the referendum led political leaders to distrust parliamentary democracy as an effective governing system and put security and stability above democratic processes. Popular trust in democratic mechanisms eroded in tandem.

But another factor was that democracy proved incapable of removing a discredited leadership, a perception compounded by allegations of widespread fraud in the Kurdish region and disputed territories during the Iraqi parliamentary elections in May 2018. The KDP and PUK unexpectedly won almost the same number of seats in the Council of Representatives in Baghdad as they had in 2014, despite their decreasing popularity and post-referendum political and military setbacks. In many Iraqi Kurds’ view, elections have become a formality, a way for the established elites to legitimise their rule rather than an avenue for political change.

Under what conditions could violence occur?

The formula for an explosion would be the total absence of avenues for meaningful political participation plus blatant electoral fraud and continued poor governance. Yet geopolitical threats posed by the growing U.S.-Iran competition in the aftermath of the war against the Islamic State, the ongoing budget crisis and the persistent political-military standoff with Baghdad after the referendum are deterring the Kurdish public from again taking to the streets, unhappy as many people are. The new normal, in the short to medium term, is to settle, however reluctantly, for the status quo.

Supporters of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr continue a sit-in protest against Mohammed Shia' al-Sudani’s appointment after storming the Iraqi parliament building for the second time in a week in Baghdad, Iraq on July 31, 2022. Murtadha Al-Sudani / Anadolu Agency via AFP

A Way Out of the Iraqi Impasse

Demonstrators are occupying parliament in Baghdad, with Iraq’s main political camps deeply divided. The standoff need not turn violent, if the country’s leaders can shift to dialogue with support from foreign partners.

It has been ten months since Iraqis went to the polls, for the fifth general election in the post-Saddam era, and the new parliament has yet to form a government. Drawn-out periods of government formation are nothing new in post-2003 Iraq, but this time around the implications may be more serious than usual. Tensions among the Shiite parties, which together hold the most total parliamentary seats, run so deep, and the rest of the political field is so fragmented, that politicians may be unable to agree on a compromise solution. With populist protesters occupying parliament since late July, observers are even concerned that Iraq may slide back into civil strife. This time, it would be intra-sectarian, unlike the bloody sectarian war that ravaged the country from 2005 to 2008. There are several factors, however, that militate against such an outcome, including that outside powers could re-engage to help Iraqi leaders find a way out of the impasse.

A Break with Tradition

The escalation of late July was the result of several compounding incidents. In mid-June, populist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr decided to withdraw his 74 parliamentarians after having failed to form a government despite winning the largest number of seats in the October 2021 polls. Sadr had forged an electoral coalition with the largest Kurdish grouping, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, and the largest Sunni Arab bloc, the Sovereignty Alliance. After the elections, he tried to parlay this coalition into a government. In doing so, he broke with nearly two decades of tradition, by which government formation has rested on an elite pact comprising the main parties in the assembly. Sadr has long cast his movement as one of outsiders, and indeed he rose to prominence after the 2003 U.S. invasion largely because his Mahdi Army militia was battling the occupying soldiers when other Shiite armed groups had merged themselves into the U.S.-backed interim Iraqi government’s security forces. Yet the Sadrists have been party to the elite pact since the 2005 elections, the first under U.S. occupation, with some of them winning parliamentary seats as part of the Shiite Islamist conglomeration of the time. They became central to the pact from 2010 onward, as their strength in parliament grew.

In his departure from past practice, Sadr aimed to sideline his main Shiite rival, former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who in turn is aligned with other Shiite parties, including pro-Iran factions. To Maliki and his allies, Sadr’s move was unacceptable, according to the logic that Shiites, as the majority sect in Iraq, should also be a majority in government, with the prerogative to appoint the prime minister. Maliki had tried a similar manoeuvre himself following the 2010 elections, when he wished to stop his chief opponent, Ayad Allawi, from forming a government. Back then, Maliki seemed to have succeeded when the Federal Supreme Court issued a ruling interpreting the term “largest bloc in parliament” in his favour. Nonetheless, in the end, because the elite pact had sunk its roots so deep, the various blocs distributed cabinet seats according to consensus, with Maliki taking key posts but also conceding ministries to his rivals, including Allawi. Sadr’s gambit, had it worked, would thus have set a precedent.

The umbrella of Shiite parties opposing Sadr organised under the name the Shiite Coordination Framework. They exerted pressure on the judiciary to offer an interpretation of the constitution – which requires that parliament have a two-thirds quorum to elect a president, who in turn nominates the prime minister – that would stop Sadr from forming a government. Sadr and his partners hoped to vote to convene the presidential election session by simple majority, confident that they could muster the necessary quorum during the session. In a February ruling, however, the Federal Supreme Court established that parliament needs a two-thirds quorum simply to convene the presidential election session. In this way, the Framework parties were able to thwart Sadr’s plans, forming what they called a protective third (Sadr and his allies dubbed it a blocking third) in this session.

Sadr’s followers stormed the parliament building ... as their leader plays on Iraqis’ general disillusionment with decision-making institutions captured by venal elites.

But neither have the Framework parties been able to meet the threshold despite Sadr withdrawing his MPs in June. They attempted to sway Sadr’s Kurdish and Sunni Arab partners to join them in forming a government, without the Sadrist deputies, but failed. At that point, they decided to act as if the Sadrists had forfeited any say in the process. They went so far as to nominate their own candidate for the premiership, Mohammed Shiyaa al-Sudani, who, though he claims to be independent, is close to Maliki. Angered at the attempt to shunt him aside, Sadr called his supporters into the streets to demonstrate against what he called corrupt leadership and, later, in favour of snap elections. On 30 July, Sadr’s followers stormed the parliament building, occupying it since then, as their leader plays on Iraqis’ general disillusionment with decision-making institutions captured by venal elites.

But Sadr’s motive for breaking with the elite pact has less to do with his concerns about corruption than with excluding Maliki from government and thus being able to forge his own state apparatus, which his rival had two terms as prime minister (2006-2014) to build. Sadr has even been open to including other Framework parties – all of them, in fact, except Maliki’s State of Law Alliance – in a government his movement leads. The other parties rejected this option, however, for fear of leaving a Shiite party out of the equation and in deference to the wishes of their patron, Iran, that does not want to see the Shiite house divided.

Sadr vs. Maliki

The demonstrations are thus less a people’s revolution than an intra-elite fight, mainly pitting Sadr and his political backers against Maliki and his. A trigger for Sadr’s escalation was a series of leaked audio tapes in mid-July, which allegedly exposed Maliki’s intent to stop Sadr by force. In one recording, a man said to be Maliki says he has armed tribes in southern provinces and is prepared to move on Najaf, where Sadr resides, to put an end to the populist cleric’s aspirations. (Maliki claims the recording is fabricated, though experts widely view it as authentic.) News of the tape rocked the political scene, but Maliki’s sentiments about Sadr can hardly be a surprise. Their bitter rivalry dates back to the early days of the sectarian war, which ended in 2008 with Operation Charge of the Knights, when Maliki, as prime minister, moved state forces against the Mahdi Army.

Worries about renewed civil strife notwithstanding, there is little appetite for war at this juncture, in contrast to the mid-2000s. The primary reason is that all sides would stand to lose, as none is strong enough to eliminate its rivals. High oil prices are another disincentive, as all want to benefit from the revenue streaming into state coffers. Nor are regional powers that once wanted an unstable Iraq interested in that goal now. Iran has meddled to varying degrees in Iraq’s internal affairs since the U.S. invasion, if less overtly since the U.S. killed Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani and allied Iraqi paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in January 2020. Amid the present tensions, however, Tehran has communicated a red line to all Shiite factions, threatening to sever links with whichever one first pulls the trigger. Lastly, Operation Charge of the Knights notwithstanding, there is a longstanding taboo against violence within the Shiite camp.

Indeed, how past tensions have been overcome offers evidence of rival Shiite factions’ ability to settle their differences through politics, even if accompanied by intimidation or threats of violence. In 2016, for instance, Sadr called on his supporters to protest the appointments in former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s cabinet. His followers occupied parliament, as they are doing now, until Abadi conceded to Sadr’s demands and replaced several ministers. In a more recent intra-Shiite showdown, current Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi sought to curb the power of pro-Iran paramilitary groups (and their affiliated political parties) by arresting their high-level commanders following the 2019 Tishreen protests. One such arrest provoked a scuffle inside the Green Zone, the fortified district of Baghdad where most vital government buildings are located, with the paramilitaries’ supporters threatening to overthrow the government. Authorities released the commander.

The standoff in the heart of the capital ... exposed once more the fragility of Iraq’s post-2003 political system.

Still, the standoff in the heart of the capital is reason for concern on several levels. It has exposed once more the fragility of Iraq’s post-2003 political system. While the oligarchical elites have come together after each previous election to divvy up shares of the government pie, they seem no longer able to do so. Their core interests remain the same, namely, to grab as much state revenue as they can, so as to extend the patronage networks they need to get re-elected. Sadr’s opponents among the elites see his attempt to exclude them from government – and stop them from dipping into the pot of oil money – as an existential challenge.

Likewise, Sadr felt threatened by his rivals’ attempt to form a government without him. He likely did not worry about losing the ministries his movement has dominated for the last decade, such as health and electricity, as his opponents would be foolhardy to cut him out of the patronage game completely. Even if they were to do so, Sadr has proven in the past that he can stand outside government and remain poised to make a political comeback. In 2007, he ordered six ministers to vacate their cabinet seats, and despite winning the most seats in the 2021 elections he was unafraid to withdraw his MPs, knowing that he still holds tools for vetoing any government of which he disapproves. Commanding his supporters to occupy parliament is one such tool. He is, however, loath to concede executive power to Maliki, who would be able to refresh the bureaucratic clout he fashioned during his two terms as premier.

Between Maliki and Sadr stand the other Shiite leaders, a diverse group, some of whom head pro-Iran parties with paramilitary wings. All of them have called for dialogue following the late July events, which showed them that once again they had underestimated Sadr’s ability to escalate by resorting to street politics. Yet most realise that neither Sadr nor Maliki is likely to walk back his position far enough that Iraq’s political forces can reach a consensus government. With an impossible parliamentary equation, in which neither Sadr nor Maliki can attain a two-thirds majority by himself, few other options remain.

For his part, Sadr continues to demand parliament’s dissolution and new elections. Some of his opponents within the Framework, such as Hadi al-Ameri, leader of the Badr Organisation, and Faleh al-Fayadh, head of the Hashd Commission, have cautiously welcomed this option. Yet many of the Framework parties are unlikely to accept it under the current electoral system, which Sadr played a decisive role in designing to suit his own needs and which they still partly blame for their 2021 defeat. Should the parties agree in principle to holding new elections, another year may pass as the elites jostle to find an electoral system they can all accept. Another outstanding issue is the status of Kadhimi’s caretaker government. Most Framework parties, especially the Iran-aligned factions, reject the notion of Kadhimi staying at the helm until new elections can take place.

Toward an Exit

Some of the difficulty Iraqi elites face in reaching a new political understanding stems from the apparent disengagement of external actors. The elites acquired their power in the years of U.S. occupation from 2003 to 2011, during which Washington nudged Iraqi politicians to compromise. Behind the scenes, Tehran did so as well in order to counter U.S. influence. Neither actor is playing such a role today, so Iraqi leaders stand alone in trying to resolve their differences. This development is necessary for the long-term welfare of Iraq’s political system, but it carries the short-term risk of violence when leaders run out of peaceful means of governing together.

Both regional and Western countries should echo the encouraging calls for dialogue coming from various Iraqi leaders. As a new consensus government is probably impossible, talks should focus on staging new elections. Fresh polls hold out the prospect of resolving the stalemate because the parties will likely change the electoral system or at least redraw district boundaries to produce a smaller gap between the Sadrist and Framework tallies. Plus, one bloc or both may lose voters, as some Iraqis may want to express disapproval of either camp over the past year. In the long run, external actors will need to help Iraq institute a constitutional review, a frequently discussed scenario since the Tishreen uprising. More and more politicians are airing possible amendments, including even moving from a parliamentary to a presidential system, against the backdrop of political paralysis. But the ground would need to be prepared before any major change to Iraq’s political system can be considered, likely in the form of a comprehensive national dialogue that includes all the country’s communities, rather than one restricted to its dominant sect or beholden to the current competitors for power.