This past week the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) nominated Nechirvan Barzani for president of the Kurdistan Region and Masrour Barzani for prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Nechirvan served as prime minister of the KRG for around 10 years, while Masrour served as Chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council for last several years.
For the KDP’s critics, these choices highlight the nepotistic, family-rule based style of the party. Masrour is the son of former KRG president and KDP leader Masoud Barzani, while Nechirvan is his nephew. Both cousins are grandsons of legendary KDP leader Mullah Mustafa Barzani. Many other key KDP leaders, such as Hoshyar Zebari (Masoud Barzani’s uncle) are likewise “in the family.”
The role of the Barzani family in the KDP is thus hardly unknown to the people of Kurdistan. When someone votes for the KDP today, they have a pretty good idea of whom they are voting for. This is precisely the point, of course. KDP supporters trust the Barzani family and like their middle of the road conservatism, as well as a secular nationalism that avoids anti-religious impulses. In contrast to the spectacle of infighting, party splinter groups and anarchy of political parties in neighboring Suleimani governorate, people know what they will get with the KDP.
Although competition and rivalries may occur within the KDP (rumors of such between Nechirvan and Masrour abound, for instance), these are kept within dignified internal bounds and never turned into a public spectacle for outsiders to use against the party, the region or the Kurds in general.
KDP supporters likewise trust the Barzani family and others within the party to strive for the best interests of their region and people. While this seems absurd to KDP critics, the party’s stalwarts point to a long list of accomplishments on behalf of the region that the KDP can take much of the credit for, from Iraqi constitutional provisions guaranteeing Kurdistan’s autonomy to oil and gas projects and moves towards independence that the overwhelming majority of Kurds agree with.
KDP supporters thus point to the experience of Nechirvan as a long-time, effective prime minister for the region, and the impressive record of Masrour in maintaining the internal security of the Kurdistan Region. Both leaders have extensive familiarity with the international milieu in which they must operate and know the diplomats and heads of state with interests in Iraq and Kurdistan. Most importantly, KDP leaders like Nechirvan and Masrour truly lead their party and its armed forces.
On most days, the same can hardly be said of other key parties in the Kurdistan Region. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in particular suffered from splinters even before the death of its founder and leader Jalal Talabani (the Gorran movement split from the PUK in 2009, and the PUK itself is a splinter from the KDP that emerged in 1976). After the death of Mam Jalal, as he was affectionately known, the PUK descended into a sordid internal struggle for control of the party.
Several factions within the Patriotic “Union” of Kurdistan acted against each other and even voted differently on key legislation in Baghdad, such as Iraq’s 2016 budget. In October 2017, one of the PUK leaders – Kosrat Rasul – was supposedly in command of the PUK Peshmerga manning the defenses around Kirkuk. A secret deal involving Bafel Talabani and Lahur Talabany (Mam Jalal’s son and nephew, reflecting the other principle family in Kurdistan besides the Barzanis) on one side and Baghdad and Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on the other demonstrated that this was not the case, however, precipitating a surprising Peshmerga retreat from the area -- upon the orders of Bafel and Lahur.
Yet another splinter party emerged from the PUK’s infighting (the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, founded and led by Barham Salih in 2017 until he rejoined the PUK in 2018 in return for its nomination of him for the presidency of Iraq). Sulaimani governorate also produced the New Generation Movement, which won a few seats in the 2018 election but is already suffering from splits and leadership clashes.
On an average day, it is difficult to see much ideological difference between the KDP, the PUK, Gorran, the CDJ or the New Generation Movement. They are all fine with capitalism, they all claim to want a strong autonomous Kurdistan and they all support Kurdish independence in principle (with part of the PUK, Gorran, CDJ and New Generation being closer to Baghdad and seeing independence as a much longer-term goal than what the KDP talks about).
Average Kurds on the street in Kurdistan, when asked about ideological differences between the parties have difficulty pointing to any – focusing instead on leadership personalities, styles of the different parties, corruption issues, and so forth.
Under such circumstances, it seems easy to understand how the KDP won some 44% of the vote in Kurdistan’s last election and why the KDP chose known and staid Barzani family members for the next top leadership positions. Although most voters in Sulaimani would like anyone but the KDP and the Barzani family, voters in Erbil and especially Duhok like the party and leaders they know. And they wish to avoid, at all costs, the political shenanigans and anarchy of their kin in Sulaimani.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.