Are Kurds’ Days of Kingmaking Over?

In the run-up to Iraq’s parliamentary elections next week, the once-united Kurds are not only suffering deep fissures but are expected to lose their privileged kingmaker position after the polls.

This lack of unity coupled with the rise of several strong coalitions in the rest of the country may lead to the decline of Kurdish power and influence in Iraqi politics, experts say.

For the last seven years, Kurds maintained a united bloc in Baghdad, leading to an unprecedented ascendancy of Kurdish power. As a result, for the first time since the establishment of the modern Iraqi state in the 1920s, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, became Iraq’s president. Iraqi constitution granted Kurds extensive rights, especially in the area of self-rule.

But unlike the two previous elections in postwar Iraq, after the upcoming polls, Kurds may no longer enjoy an influence on par with the past years.

"I don’t think Kurds are very well positioned coming into this election," said Kathleen Ridolfo, an independent Arab affairs’ analyst, during an Iraq event at the American Enterprise Institute on Monday.

Their influence in Baghdad "depends on how well they can play their cards and who will they align with. Kurds are definitely in a difficult position," she said.

The internal Kurdish divisions crystallized last July when various opposition groups emerged victorious from Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional parliamentary elections, securing nearly 30 percent of the seats. The main reason behind the opposition’s birth was growing discontent with the two major Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The PUK is led by Talabani, and Massoud Barzani, the current president of the Kurdistan region, heads the KDP. The two parties run the Kurdish government which is in charge of the three northern provinces of Irbil, Sulaimaniya, and Dohuk in northern Iraq.

The major opposition group is Gorran, or Change, a secular group whose founders were mostly senior officials who defected from Talabani’s PUK. Gorran succeeded in gaining large popularity in local Kurdish elections through an anti-corruption platform that appealed to many people. The other main opposition party is the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), a moderate Islamist organization.

The atmosphere is reportedly tense in Iraqi Kurdistan these days, with various groups accusing each other of campaign violations and "undemocratic acts." Gorran has severely criticized the two ruling parties, in particular the PUK, and charged they are intimidating and assaulting supporters.

Many Kurds fear such small incidents may lead to some serious violence. Kurdistan underwent a bloody civil war from 1994 to 1998 that left thousands dead.

Although the KDP and PUK are officially allies on the same list, a fierce competition is also taking place between them under the surface. Alongside several small parties, the KDP and PUK have formed the Kurdistan Alliance list for these elections, but each party campaigns mostly for its own candidates.

Because the PUK lost its stronghold of Sulaimaniya to Gorran during the local Kurdish elections last summer, it is vital for PUK to gain enough seats so that it can present itself as an equal partner to KDP once again. After the local Kurdish vote in summer, KDP emerged as the most powerful Kurdish party. Any major loss in these elections for PUK will seriously hurt its position in Kurdish and Iraqi politics.

Many in Iraq and outside wonder how the current divisions among Kurds will reflect on their role and influence in Baghdad in the next four years. With the U.S. troops scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, many Kurds fear their possible lack of power in Baghdad will mean they will have an extremely hard time dealing with other Iraqi groups.

There are a range of unresolved disputes between Kurds and Arabs over the oil-rich Kirkuk region and other territories claimed by both Kurds and Arabs, as well as the oil and gas law, the powers of the autonomous Kurdish government versus the federal government in Baghdad, and the status of Kurdish peshmerga forces.

With the physical rift within the Kurdish camp a growing reality, senior Kurdish leaders emphasize the need for "united positions" by Kurds in Baghdad.

"It is very important for us to have a united position. We can have different lists and parties and opinions in our own [Kurdish] parliament and fight in our own parliament, but when it comes to [Kurdish] national issues, then we must undoubtedly put aside other things and insist on how to defend our existence and protect our achievements," said Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish region’s president, during a speech in Irbil last week.

It is not clear to what extent the Kurdish opposition groups like Gorran will cooperate with the KDP-PUK coalition in the Iraqi parliament. In the past four years, the KIU’s five-member independent bloc in the Iraqi parliament closely cooperated with the main Kurdish bloc on the key issues of disagreement between the Iraqi government and the Kurdish government.

Although Gorran leaders have said they will not compromise on Kurdish rights in the Iraqi constitution, it remains to be seen in what ways and how they will cooperate with the KDP-PUK coalition, if at all.

"In terms of the goals and the basis of our work, we have the same goal and basis [as the KDP-PUK coalition]. But in terms of the style of our work, we are different from them," said Noshirwan Mustafa, the head of Gorran, during an interview with the Arabic-language al-Jazeera channel in early February.

The current array of Iraq’s political forces can both guarantee a role for Kurds or seriously limit their power and influence in the future government and parliament.

Because there are more and smaller coalitions for the parliamentary elections this time, no single coalition is thought to be able to form the future government. It might even possibly take more than two coalitions to form the cabinet.

The major coalitions are State of Law, led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and the Iraqi National Alliance, whose major components are the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Ammar al-Hakim, and Moqtada al-Sadr’s group. Both of these coalitions are composed of mostly Shia groups.

A third strong coalition is the largely secular al-Iraqiya, a combination of Shia and Sunni elements, led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shia.

According to Iraqi law, the coalition with the highest number of seats will be assigned to form the government, but it will most likely need other partners to pass the 50+1 threshold to form the cabinet. Knowing that, major coalitions have started to court the Kurds in order to gain their support when it comes to forming the future government.

Even PM Maliki, with whom Kurds have not been on good terms, recently expressed his readiness to enter into a coalition with Kurds, saying they have played a "principal" role in reshaping the Iraqi state.

"I cannot see any scenario that other groups can bypass the Iraqi Kurdish coalition," Ahmed Ali, an Iraqi analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told IPS. He says the internal Kurdish splits "might give the impression that the Kurdish parties would be somehow weaker," but in any event Kurds will be sought after by other coalitions.

(Inter Press Service)