Shortly before the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) sensed the changes coming to Iraq and began moves to unify their administrations and pursue Kurdish goals collectively.
This culminated in a deal wherein the KDP’s Masoud Barzani would gain the presidency of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the PUK’s Jalal Talabani would enjoy unified Kurdish support for the presidency of Iraq (this way neither leader would feel slighted). The KDP and PUK would also put forward united electoral lists in Iraqi national elections and even in Kurdistan’s elections at times.
The deal brought many gains for Kurdistan, including a strong negotiating team for drawing up the 2005 constitution that enshrined federalism and extensive decentralization for Iraq. For a long time, international envoys and politicians from Baghdad had one address to go to in Kurdistan – that of the KRG in Erbil, a government based on a power-sharing formula between the KDP and PUK. This was a laudable achievement for a nation intent on maximizing its self-determination and security.
The unification of two separate administrations in Kurdistan (the KDP’s KRG in Duhok and Erbil and the PUK’s KRG in Sulaimani) progressed a great deal during this time, but foundered on three ministries: finance, Peshmerga (defense), and the interior. Neither party seemed willing to surrender its power in terms of money, soldiers, and police to the institutions of a unified KRG, lest they lose control of such institutions to another party following new elections.
Things started to unravel further with the disintegration of the PUK. First a splinter party, the Change Movement (Gorran), broke away from the PUK in 2009. Gorran focused on attacking corruption within the KDP and PUK, which remains a laudable goal on its own, but seemed willing to burn down much of the KRG in the process.
Gorran media and politicians hosted the Kurdistan Region’s most virulent critics, for whom no accusation against the establishment Kurdish parties seemed too strong or outlandish. WikiLeaks documents even showed Gorran leaders meeting with American diplomats in secret in 2010 and telling them they were for a strong central government in Iraq and against the incorporation of Kirkuk into Kurdistan.
For a time, Gorran’s electoral performance went on to surpass the PUK’s. Needless to say, Gorran had little interest in working with the KDP on shared Kurdish interests in Baghdad or abroad, focusing instead on challenging the “establishment” in Kurdistan.
In late 2012, a stroke removed PUK leader Jalal Talabani from the Iraqi presidency and the country’s political scene. The PUK then suffered further splits and splinters, as various PUK politburo members unsuccessfully struggled to establish their leadership over the party. Although the PUK maintained an armed force comparable to that of the KDP, its political status fell far behind that of its historic rival.
Actors from outside Kurdistan now had multiple addresses to visit when they wanted something from the Kurds. They might go to the KDP offices in Erbil, to Gorran in Sulaimani, or to any number of PUK factions in Sulaimani. Even the KDP turned out to be confused about who ran things in the PUK. Believing the PUK’s politburo member Kosrat Rasul Ali was in control of the PUK Peshmerga, the KDP was surprised to learn in October 2017 that other members of the Talabani family were negotiating independently with Baghdad and Tehran and ordering much of the PUK’s forces to retreat from Kirkuk.
It is in this context that the latest unseemly contest for the Iraqi presidency played out. The PUK convinced one of its former leaders, Barham Salih, to leave the splinter party he had only recently founded and become their nominee for Iraq’s presidency. The KDP rejected Salih and advanced one of its own candidates for the post, effectively ignoring the KDP-PUK entente of the last 13 years.
When the Kurdish parties failed to put forward just one candidate for the post, the Iraqi parliament made the final selection for them – choosing Salih. The KDP in turn accused of the PUK of tricking them, saying PUK leaders had agreed to the KDP’s choice for the post until the very last moment before the vote (an accusation the PUK denied).
Still smarting from this loss, and what they view as a crass betrayal of October of 2017, the KDP seems very unlikely to offer the PUK anything close to half the posts in the next Kurdistani government. In the Kurdistan elections of September 30, 2018, the KDP garnered over 38 percent of the vote, while the PUK won close to 25 percent. Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, with some justification, will argue that the PUK should get a proportion of cabinet seats reflective of its electoral performance.
The deal between the KDP and PUK, in other words, seems to be finished. The prospects of even a modicum of Kurdish unity within Iraq thus remain poor.
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.