Middle East

Lethal PUK/KDP Divisions Facilitate the Demise of Kurdish Autonomy in Iraq

by Zmkan Ali Saleem

Kurdistan Region Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and his deputy Qubad Talabani meet in May 2023. Source: PM Office, KRI

Located at the centre of the Middle East, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has not been safe from the spill-over of the Israel-Gaza conflict. Its close alliance with the US has brought the Region under drone and rocket attacks by Iran and its affiliates among Iraq’s Shia militia groups – including a direct ballistic missile attack by Tehran on the KRI’s capital Erbil. However even amidst this, arguably the most existential threats to the Region’s survival remain the debilitating financial, legal and political measures aimed at it by Baghdad-based authorities and parties.

In the midst of mounting pressure from Baghdad, the KRI’s two main parties – the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – have remained at loggerheads, going as far as facilitating Baghdad’s encroachment onto the internal affairs of the Region. How do we explain this lack of cooperation between two parties whose main function is to protect the constitutionally mandated Kurdish autonomy in Iraq?

This article previews a forthcoming PeaceRep report that will examine Iraqi Kurdistan’s current political dynamics from the perspective of the predatory theory of rule.   

Divide and Conquer

While the rest of Iraq has enjoyed financial stability – thanks to global oil prices remaining above the threshold set in the national budget – the KRI has been going through deep financial crisis, mainly due to pressure from Baghdad. Exerting major influence within various political and financial institutions of the central Iraqi government, powerful Baghdad-based Shia parties and factions have blocked the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) from accessing the region’s share in the national budget. Lack of access to federal finances on regular basis has left the KRG on the brink of financial collapse, given the additional lost revenue from independent oil exports via Turkey, which halted in March 2023 (after a Paris-based court of arbitration ruled in favour of Baghdad and against Ankara, stating that the latter breached a 1973 law by allowing the independent KRG oil exports since 2014).

Financially strangled by Baghdad, the KRG has struggled to pay the salaries of its approximately 1.2 million employees, resulting in domestic unrest. Recently, the KRI was rocked by months-long, salary-related anti-KRG protests and pickets by thousands of civil servants in the region’s Sulaimaniyah governorate. The goal of Baghdad’s strategy in the KRI appears to have been the intentional sowing of internal discord as a method to exercise greater control once again.

Baghdad’s divide and rule strategy has paid off.  Finding no solution to the hardship introduced to their daily lives by unpaid and delayed salaries in the region itself, some protestors resorted to the Baghdad-based Federal Supreme Court (FSC) for support. In response, the FSC (whose decisions are binding) passed a ruling that on the surface aligns with the concerns of the civil servants, but may practically strengthen Baghdad’s authority in the KRI at the expense of the KRG. The ruling calls on the Baghdad government to bypass the KRG and directly pay the salaries of civil servants in the KRI. When fully implemented, the ruling is likely to undermine the KRG by reducing its significance to the lives of many Iraqi Kurds who live on government salaries.

Differences over ‘Strategic Matters’

This ruling is only one among a series the FSC has passed since 2022 that stand to jeopardise the KRI’s autonomy. The court has already rendered the region’s 2007 oil and gas law unconstitutional, ordering the transfer of control over the KRI’s oil sector from the KRG to the Baghdad government, dissolved the previous regional parliament and provincial councils, and engineered the electoral system and rules for the next regional elections – including cancelling 11 quota seats allocated for the non-Kurd, non-Muslim minorities in the region’s parliament. But only the KDP, which controls the positions of the regional prime minister and president, protested against the FSC’s rulings and described them as unconstitutional and politically motivated.  The PUK, which holds the position of the KRG’s deputy prime minister, has largely acquiesced to the court’s rulings.

Through the power-sharing arrangement by which they form the KRG, the PUK and the KDP have intensely competed for power and resources in the KRI. So far, Baghdad has been the main winner of the power struggle between the two parties, with the PUK resorting to Baghdad-based authorities and influential parties to check the dominance of the KDP in the region. For instance, the FSC’s decision to cancel the 11 minority seats was passed in response to a lawsuit filed by the PUK with the court. While it may have dealt a blow to the KDP’s future power in the KRI – as minorities would always align with the KDP after regional elections allowing the party a parliamentary majority – the ruling paved the way for Baghdad to encroach upon the region’s internal affairs.

The PUK’s recourse to Baghdad that has perhaps led the KDP’s president Masoud Barzani to recently point out that the differences that separated his party from the PUK were over ‘strategic matters’ associated with the very survival of the KRI. ‘It is not permissible to collaborate with those who want to dismantle the region. It is not permissible to ally with those who want to end the region. These are the strategic matters,’ added Barzani.

The KDP’s policies are now largely driven by a threat perception that links the determination of Baghdad to undermine the KDP-dominated KRG with the PUK’s reliance on Baghdad-based parties and authorities in its bid to weaken the KDP in the KRI. Considering this linkage is important to understanding the KDP’s recent decision not to participate in the upcoming regional elections scheduled for 10 June 2024, in protest against the FSC’s decisions regarding financial and political/electoral affairs of the KRI. Without the KDP, which controls key positions within the KRG and wields major military and political influence over Erbil and Duhok – two of the region’s three largest governorates – it is hard to see the elections taking place.

This could be brinkmanship, designed to extract financial and political guarantees from Baghdad that could help the KDP win the elections and maintain its dominant position in the region. But the move also entails major risks and could potentially result in further escalating tensions with Baghdad, while breaking the region down into its constituent elements of yellow zone (comprising Erbil and Duhok governorates) and green zone (comprising Sulaimaniyah governorate) under the separate military, political and administrative control of the KDP and PUK respectively.

End of Kurdish Autonomy in Iraq: A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

During his Newroz message on 20 March 2024, Nechirvan Barzani, the president of the KRI and second in charge of the KDP, stated ‘Had we stood united, the current situation could have been averted.’ Indeed, agreement and cooperation in the region could have enabled the PUK/KDP to better manage pressure from Baghdad, as the two leaderships know well. But they are also aware of the fact that inter-party agreement and cooperation – which have always depended on sharing resources and revenues via the KRG through a somewhat Byzantine mechanism – are conditioned by a system of rule they have created through their predatory practices. Resource abundance in the region generates cooperation between the two parties as plenty allows the PUK/KDP to leave aside their differences, share revenues and finance their vast patronage and clientelist networks: the main pillars of PUK/KDP power.

Conversely, shrinking resources puts the power-sharing system in the region under stress and generates competition between the PUK/KDP. Thus, the current power struggle between the two parties can be partly attributed to a reduction in the resources and revenues the region can access due to party capture, the increasing pressure from Baghdad and the loss of access to Kirkuk’s oil since October 2017. Under these circumstances, the KDP, with greater government and economic leverages, may have calculated that retaining power in its own zone of influence makes more sense than sharing resources and collaborating with the PUK in the overall interests of the KRI. Hence, the PUK’s frustration and pivot to Baghdad.

The greater strains on compromise and collaboration between the PUK/KDP have come from the actions and behaviour of some of the members of the second generation of the two parties’ leadership. Occupying key positions within the KRG and their respective parties, these leaders have relied on narrow cliques of party loyalists, are deeply insecure about rivals within and outside the PUK/KDP and hold distrustful views of each other. Each has developed an unfounded belief in the determination of the other for undermining his power and the power of his party and, most problematically, acted accordingly: to the detriment of the region’s stability and survival.

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