Post From BondLadys Corner
BondLady & Tlm724 News & Comments 6-26-16 Part 2 of 3
Saturday, May 21, 2016 Kurdish Objectives in Iraq’s Political Crisis
by: Emily Anagnostos with Patrick Martin
Key Takeaway: Iraqi politics are deadlocked. Several political parties and blocs boycotted the Council of Representatives (CoR) following the Sadrist protesters’ first breach of the Green Zone on April 30.
The Kurdish Alliance, a bloc that consisted of nearly one-fifth of the CoR, withdrew on May 5. The bloc has now split, and two of its component political parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran, formally reunited on May 14 to create a new bloc. The PUK and Gorran were incentivized by the urgent need for financial assistance to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and likely by Iranian urging.
A loan from the IMF in which Baghdad and the KRG will have a share proved decisive in incentivizing their cohesion. The PUK-Gorran Alliance will therefore likely strengthen ties between Baghdad and Arbil.
Their rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), retains ambitions of regional independence and a stranglehold on political power in the KRG. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) will either have to reintegrate or seek new political partners.
The PUK and Gorran will likely eventually return to the CoR. Although they are still negotiating with the KDP, Kurdish parties are unlikely to return the CoR as one entity, ending what had been a significant, cohesive bloc. The new political alliance will nevertheless shift the power dynamics of both Baghdad and Arbil.
The Kurdistan Alliance has been the framework under which Kurdish political parties have formed a consensus agenda in the Iraqi Parliament since 2005 elections.
The Kurdistan Alliance since 2014 elections had been comprised of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Gorran, the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), and Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG), the five of which constituted the entirety of Kurdish representation in the Iraqi parliament and are the five largest parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
These five political parties are answerable to both the politics of Baghdad and those of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Kurdistan Alliance has primarily aimed to maintain Kurdish influence within the Iraqi Government in order to guarantee financial and budgetary assistance for the KRG.
The Kurdistan Alliance persistently blocked Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s attempt to create a technocratic government through his cabinet reshuffle, proposed first on February 9, 2015.
The bloc has insisted on retaining the ethnic and sectarian quotas that ensure Kurdish representation within the government, preserve Kurdish control over ministries, and ensure that the Iraqi Presidency remains in Kurdish hands.
The bloc’s goal in the reforms was retaining positions for Kurdish leaders, such as Minister of Finance Hoshyar Zebari, a member of the KDP. PM Abadi’s reform plans, however, seek to end the quota system on principle which threatens guaranteed Kurdish representation and may lead to a decrease in Kurdish representation.
The Kurdish parties had presented a unified bloc in Baghdad until May 1, while within the KRG they have been fractious and struggling with one another for power. KRG President Masoud Barzani has retained his office past when his term limit ended in 2013 when the legal council in the KRG parliament twice granted him a two year extension, first in August 2013 and then in August 2015, granting him full powers until the 2017 parliamentary elections.
His rivals in the Gorran Party, the second largest party in the KRG, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) denounced this extension, calling for new presidential elections and even for a new form of government. The political crisis split the KRG on October 12, 2015 when the KDP blamed Gorran for the large-scale anti-KDP demonstrations which erupted in Sulaimaniyah Province over unpaid salaries.
The KDP expelled Gorran from the KRG, demanding that Gorran not return to the government until they had replaced several Gorran members whom the KDP blamed for the political tensions.
The split in the KRG has continued since then without resolution. The KDP and Gorran have yet to reconcile and Gorran has not returned to the Kurdish Government in Arbil. The PUK attempted to act as a mediator between the five main political parties in the KRG in early 2016 in order to restore Gorran to the KRG.
All five Kurdish parties met on February 3 for the first time since October 2015. They were scheduled to meet again on February 7 in the presence of Masoud Barzani, but the KDP “indefinitely delayed” these negotiations for reconciliation. These divisions have created incentives for Gorran and PUK to try to thwart Barzani’s consolidation of power, and even to seek recourse in Baghdad to achieve those gains.
The Kurdistan Alliance Withdraws from Baghdad Politics
The Kurdistan Alliance withdrew from Iraq’s Council of Representatives in Baghdad, outraged over the failure of security forces to secure the CoR building during the April 30 protests, when Sadrist Trend-driven protesters stormed the Green Zone and the parliamentary building and physically assaulted Kurdish CoR members.
Those assaulted included PUK senior member Ala Talabani, niece of PUK founder Jalal Talabani, and Deputy CoR Speaker Aram Sheikh Muhammad. The Kurdish parties left for Iraqi Kurdistan on May 1 after escaping the Green Zone and announced that they would not return to Baghdad until their physical safety was guaranteed.
One Kurdish CoR member stated that there was “no hope in the current government” to contain the crisis, and called CoR Speaker Salim Juburi’s efforts to resolve the crisis as temporary and incapable of being implemented. The Kurdish parties on May 5 refused to come back to the CoR for the next session, originally scheduled for 10 May.
The Kurdistan Alliance’s withdrawal from Baghdad represents a major inflection point in the Iraqi political crisis because the Kurdish parties control a significant proportion of the CoR and have the ability to help determine a quorum as well as advance and dismiss legislation. Their unified walk-out gave the Kurds a new source of leverage over the CoR, as Iraq’s political process remains paralyzed without their participation.
The Kurdistan Alliance’s Demands
President Masoum met with senior ISCI member Adil Abdul-Mahdi on May 6 to discuss the political crisis and future plans in the Ministry of Oil, especially regarding the mission of self-sufficiency in the oil industry. The Kurdish demands regarding oil and gas laws were likely a central focus of this conversation as a solution to resume the political process in Baghdad.
Kurdish demands also included addressing Article 140 in the Constitution regarding the disputed status of Kirkuk Province, a highly controversial topic which will not be resolved in these negotiations.
President Masoum continued to meet with other political parties with significant clout in the Iraqi Government, including meetings with ISCI leader Ammar al-Hakim, National Alliance leader Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and SLA leader Nouri al-Maliki all individually on May 9, where Masoum likely acted as mediator between political parties in order to relay the financial prerequisites of the Kurdish CoR members’ return and hear the negotiating terms from these three Shi’a political leaders. These negotiations were not decisive and failed to draw the Kurdish political parties back to Baghdad.
Most Kurdish demands of Baghdad were driven by money rather than security. Initially, the Kurds maintained that the primary condition of their return to Baghdad was a guarantee that the events of April 30 would not repeat, calling it a “black day” in Iraqi political history.
But the Kurdish political bloc continued to pursue its enduring demands for legislation in Baghdad on the core issues of revenue sharing, budget relief, and the status of the disputed internal boundaries (DIBs) that it wishes to incorporate into the Kurdish region.
The KRG currently struggles to pay the salaries of both its government employees and its Peshmerga forces and, like Baghdad, is burdened with falling global oil prices. The Kurdish Alliance thus replaced the blustering of the previous days in order to demand more tangible financial concessions from Baghdad.
These demands include the payment of government and Peshmerga salaries and implementation of oil and gas laws which would help the KRG’s floundering economic situation. They were relayed between various political parties by Iraqi President Fuad Masoum, a senior member of the PUK who also speaks on behalf of the Kurdish parties in Baghdad’s power politics.
The Kurds also issued a set of demands which were both unreasonable and unattainable. The walk out on May 1 was coupled with the publication of an op-ed by Masrour Barzani, nephew of KRG President Masoud Barzani, calling for an “amicable divorce” from Baghdad on May 5.
The KDP thereby added the threat of declaring independence to the list of demands. Masoud Barzani announced back on January 26 that he would seek to hold a referendum before the U.S. 2016 presidential elections, likely using the upcoming U.S. elections as a tangible deadline to foster a sense of imminent change.
Baghdad Vies for Kurds to Return
The threat that Kurdish parties would withdraw indefinitely, and possibly permanently, from Baghdad changed the ongoing negotiations among Iraqi Government leaders who immediately prioritized negotiations for the Kurdistan Alliance’s return.
But because Baghdad’s leaders were themselves fractured over Abadi’s reforms among other issues, several political groups within Baghdad will vie for the Kurds’ return to the CoR and into new political agreements.
The emerging Reform Front, created from the rump parliament session on April 27, seeks Kurdish membership in its efforts to reach a quorum. Abadi hopes to court the Kurds back into the political process in order to resume his reform legislation and to block the Reform Front’s efforts to changing the status quo.
CoR Speaker Salim al-Juburi was among the first to visit some Kurdish parties in order to secure their return to the political process in Baghdad, but he went to Sulaimaniyah, the headquarters of the PUK, rather than the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Arbil where the KDP prevails.
Juburi’s outreach to Kurdish leaders on May 8 appeared to be relegated to the Kurdish opposition parties of the PUK and Gorran, with Juburi visiting recently-returned Gorran leader Nushirwan Mustafa, who had returned to the Kurdistan Region on April 28 after seven months in London seeking medical treatment. The timing of his return is not coincidental.
Juburi also met with Gorran Deputy CoR Speaker Aram Sheikh Muhammad and PUK leader Ala Talabani. Gorran and the PUK stand to lose from continued political absence and are less committed ideologically to an independent Kurdish Region as the KDP. They also have stakes in removing the political stranglehold of President Barzani over KRG politics.
The international community, led by Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq Jan Kubis, finally achieved a breakthrough that softened some Kurdish parliamentarians’ hardline stance against their return to the CoR by appealing to financial interests.
Kubis carried out a series of meetings in both Sulaimaniyah, the headquarters of the PUK, and Arbil, the headquarters of the KDP, on May 8, where he reminded the Kurdish parties that they would have access to the much needed International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan only if they participated in the government in Baghdad. Iraq stands to gain significant financial support from a proposed $15 billion loan from the IMF over the next three years.
The KRG, as a part of Iraq, would stand to inherit a portion of that fund, which, if approved, is slated to release the first of three installments in June 2016. The prospect of massive financial support through the IMF loan is further enticement for Kurdish parties to remain active in the Baghdad government.
The Kurdish Alliance Fractures
The Kurdistan Alliance has formally fractured over these financial incentives. The threat of no international financial assistance has motivated several Kurdish CoR members to walk away from stringent Kurdish demands of independence and from the KDP.
The Iraqi Government has continued to court Kurdish opposition parties, who are the most likely to soften at prospects of the IMF loan, as Prime Minister Abadi personally sent a delegation to Sulaimaniyah on May 12 to meet with PUK member Ala Talabani and Gorran Second Deputy CoR Speaker Aram Sheikh Muhammad.
The IMF loan was the weight needed to break apart the Kurdistan Alliance. Gorran and the PUK announced on May 14 that they had ratified a new political alliance. The two announced that they would run on the same list in 2017 elections and would coordinate in political efforts in the KRG, in the CoR, and in provincial governments.
The new PUK-Gorran Alliance will seek alternative demands and negotiations for participation in Baghdad and will be more willing to cooperate with the federal government than the KDP in order to achieve their financial demands.
A Reform Front member made an unconfirmed report on May 13 that suggested that the PUK-Gorran Alliance and Baghdad plan to carry out significant financial negotiations including handing over oil sales to Baghdad in exchange for Baghdad providing salaries for Kurdish employees in Sulaimaniyah, Kirkuk, and Arbil provinces.
The PUK and Gorran are not in favor of declaring independence of Iraqi Kurdistan at this time, and a senior PUK official, Mulla Bakhtiar, noted during Juburi’s May 8 visit that “we are still a part of Iraq.”
Deputy Prime Minister of the KRG and PUK member Qubad Talabani later stated on May 15 that now was not the time for Kurdish independence, pointing specifically to the KRG’s weak economy and infrastructure. The KRG, with the PUK-Gorran Alliance in charge, would remain a part of Iraq and would seek negotiations with Baghdad.
The PUK and Gorran together have 29 CoR members (originally 30; one Gorran member has joined the Reform Front) to the KDP’s 25.
Currently 216 of 328 CoR members are assessed to be boycotting CoR sessions, the possible return of the new PUK-Gorran Alliance would likely influence other blocs, notably the Sunni Etihad bloc with roughly 40 active members, to return as well. (The current size of Etihad is unclear, as some members have joined the Reform Front, but Etihad likely retains a sizeable number of members.)
These additions could put the CoR in range of meeting quorum and resuming sessions. The KIU and KIG may also be persuaded to follow the PUK-Gorran lead and return their seven CoR members to Baghdad. The Reform Front will try to court the PUK-Gorran Alliance to join their bloc in order to sway the CoR majority in their favor.
Nouri al-Maliki praised the new PUK-Gorran Alliance on May 18 as an “important step” to overcoming divisions within the Kurdistan Region and “an overall understanding with Baghdad.”
The Reform Front will likely increase relations with the new alliance in the coming days in order to persuade the PUK-Gorran Alliance to considering rejoining the CoR as a part of the Reform Front.
Note: ISW has tracked Iraq’s building political crisis since early February, following political reforms proposed by Prime Minister Abadi and the challenges to them.
The Council of Representatives (CoR) has also faced challenges from an increasingly fractious set of parties some of which have attempted to break off from the CoR and form a “rump” Parliament that later morphed into a new opposition bloc, the Reform Front, composed of members from various parties.
As with all political maneuvering, ISW has relied on media reporting as well as our own assessment of likely political coordination, cooperation, and alignment among and between individuals and parties.
We are currently re-examining our methodology in light of recent maneuvers and statements leading up to the CoR Ramadan break and will update our CoR graphic when that analysis is completed.