New Kurdish Party Could Destabilize Northern Iraq

Although official results won’t be due for up to a week, the victory of the two ruling parties in last Saturday’s provincial election in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq was never in doubt. The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have run the region in a virtual duopoly since 1991, when the U.S.-patrolled No-Fly Zone helped force Saddam Hussein’s military out of the region. However, a new coalition, the Change List, is expected to make gains in the election, with polls showing that it could capture as much as a quarter of the vote. This represents the first significant challenge to the ruling parties in the region, and it could herald a new era of instability in Iraq.

In the years since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, Kurdistan has been relatively peaceful compared with the rest of the country, in large part owing to its ruling parties, which began as guerrilla groups fighting Saddam’s genocidal campaign against the ethnic Kurdish minority. After Saddam’s downfall, the two parties put aside their differences — the KDP is a tribal-style organization dominated by the Barzani family, and the PUK is a socialist-like group run by a party cadre led by Jalal Talabani — to present a united Kurdish front in negotiations with Arab Iraqis and the U.S. over the future of the Iraqi state. As part of the deal, the KDP agreed to push for the nomination of Talabani to be the first President of Iraq, while KDP leader Massoud Barzani became the President of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

The parties’ cooperation helped them win major concessions for the Kurds while the rest of Iraq was mired in civil war. Besides winning the presidency for Talabani, the Kurds had their claims to disputed areas of northern Iraq, particularly the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, recognized in Iraq’s new constitution. But the region’s leaders have been cautious about pushing the Kurds’ nationalist claims too far. Although the Kurdish population overwhelmingly supports the creation of an independent Kurdish state carved out of northern Iraq, Kurdish leaders realize it would have a slim chance of survival surrounded by hostile neighbors — Turkey, Iran and Syria — that don’t want to see their own Kurdish minorities secede. The Kurdish ruling parties have instead stood behind the idea of a unified, federal Iraq.

But there’s a darker side to the dominance of the KDP and PUK in Kurdistan. Human-rights groups claim that the ruling parties use security issues as an excuse to jail and torture opponents and rivals. In addition, the parties’ leaders control vast sectors of the region’s economy, and foreign and local businessmen say it is nearly impossible to start a venture in Kurdistan without a silent partner from one of the two groups. Critics also say the parties use the allocation of jobs in schools, hospitals and government ministries as a way to enforce loyalty. And the region’s few independent media outlets frequently complain of harassment.

The success of the Change List in the provincial elections would be a sign of just how much these criticisms are gaining traction in Kurdistan. But while many Kurds certainly welcome a new spirit of competition in their political system, it may come at the cost of increasing tension between Kurdish leaders and the Iraqi government. Besides campaigning against corruption, the Change List accuses Kurdish leaders of doing a poor job of standing up for Kurdish interests in Baghdad, such as seeing that the government delivers on its constitutional obligations to return Kirkuk and other disputed areas to Kurdish governance. With Iraq’s Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian violence largely in check, the growing Kurdish-Arab discord has become the most worrisome fault line in the country. Massoud Barzani, head of the KRG, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki haven’t spoken in over a year, and KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said recently that Kurdish-Arab relations are at their lowest point since Saddam was in power.

Ironically, the Change List’s electoral success could result in the further consolidation of power in the hands of the KDP. The balance of power between the KDP and the PUK started to shift in the KDP’s favor after Talabani took the prestigious but highly symbolic office of the Iraqi presidency, allowing Massoud Barzani to build up a power base back home in Kurdistan. The Change List further eroded the PUK’s stature in the region by mounting a significant challenge against the party on its home turf in Sulaimaniyah.

For all the effort the Americans have put into bringing democracy to Iraq, there could now be a showdown brewing between al-Maliki, who is setting himself up as the country’s new strongman, and the Barzani clan in Kurdistan.

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