In the past, Kurdistan’s political parties contested country-wide parliamentary elections in Iraq with united lists such as the Democratic Patriotic Alliance of Kurdistan and, since 2009, the Kurdistani List (also known as the Kurdistan Alliance). Such lists attempted to bring together as many of Kurdistan’s political parties as possible in order to present a united front in Baghdad and better secure Kurdistanis’ political interests.
The Kurdistani List included the KDP, PUK, Kurdistan Communist Party, the Kurdistan Toilers’ Party, the Turkmen Brotherhood Movement, the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party and others, although not the Gorran Movement and Kurdistan Islamic Union.
Such Kurdistani coalitions allowed parties in Erbil to win some 15-20% of seats (40-50 seats) in Iraq’s parliament, while Gorran and the Kurdish Islamic parties individually would take another dozen or so seats in the parliament.
The case for unifying coalitions in these national-level Iraqi elections remains strong, of course. The more parliamentary seats Kurdistani parties secure, the more power they can command in Baghdad. At the same time, parties such as Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic parties understandably do not wish to join a coalition wherein they will be overshadowed by the larger KDP. This hampers the creation of a stronger, united front in Baghdad and allows others to play the Kurdistani parties off against one another, as we saw recently in October following the referendum on independence.
The people of Kurdistan can no longer afford such divisions.
Although it is too late for the May 2018 election (the deadline to register coalitions for this election was January 11), the Kurds in Iraq should consider a new strategy for the future. The principle Kurdish movement in Turkey might offer an example worth following in this case: there, the Kurds made alliances with progressive non-Kurdish parties to form the People’s Democracy Party (HDP) to contest country-wide parliamentary elections, while keeping the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) for local elections in the Kurdish parts of Turkey. HDP could thus focus more on broadening its base of support and appealing to non-Kurdish voters in western Turkey, while the BDP could go on doing what it likes locally.
This strategy gets replicated in many countries, with national-level parties differing from local parties (in Canada, the national/federal-level Liberal Party is a completely different party than the Quebec Provincial Liberal party – even though they share the same name they often promote different policies nationally and locally).
What would such a strategy look like in Iraq? To begin with, the Iraq-wide political party or coalition would not have the name “Kurdistan” in it. The party/coalition would include Arab parties (as well as Turkmen and others) and key personalities.
With a name along the lines of “The Federal Democratic Alliance” or “The Democratic Regions and Governorates Party,” this coalition would have one overriding and unifying theme: pushing for decentralization of power and respect for regions and governorates in Iraq. On issues not related to decentralization of power, such as the role of Islam in legislation or election laws, coalition parliamentarians could vote according to their whims.
Party whips would only demand a unified stand on issues relating to decentralization and autonomy, such as not allowing Baghdad to monopolize budgets, oil, security forces and similar matters not listed in Article 110 of the Constitution (which enumerates the Federal Government’s exclusive competencies). This might assuage parties such as Gorran about joining the coalition, as they would not be in a KDP-dominated coalition and could continue to run their own party list in Kurdistan elections.
More importantly, there remain many Arab political parties and leaders that share the Kurds’ concern about centralization of power and authoritarianism in Baghdad and who could also be approached to join such a coalition. Ammar al-Hakim (formerly of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq) and his National Wisdom Movement alone would roughly double the Kurds’ representation in Baghdad (as the Kurds would double his group’s representation).
In the Sunni Arab political landscape, friendly Arab tribes and people such as the Nujaifi brothers could be brought into the coalition. Pro-decentralization Arab movements in fact exist throughout the country, from Basra and Wasit to Diyala, Nineveh and Anbar.
United solely on the issue of decentralization, such a broad and non-sectarian coalition could form a mighty force in Baghdad. Such a coalition could even wield enough political weight so as to make Haidar al-Abadi and his friends sorry they forced the Kurds to stay in Iraq. And as long as they do remain within Iraq, the people of Kurdistan might as well play the Iraqi political game as best they can with a national-level party, leaving local parties to focus on the Kurdistan Region, other future regions and various governorates.
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.