Why the unity of the PUK is important for Iraqi Kurds

Factionalism within the PUK party has destabilised the Kurdish region of Iraq for years. Its leadership has to unite.

PUK Reuters
Kurdish supporters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) celebrate after the closing of ballot boxes during the parliamentary election in Kirkuk, Iraq, May 12, 2018 [File:Ako Rasheed/Reuters]

Although the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) has not been hit by the wave of protests seen in other parts of the country, it too has been experiencing its own political uncertainty. Much of it has to do with factionalism within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which along with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has ruled the region for two decades.

Over the past few years, splits within the PUK leadership has caused instability in the areas of the KRI it dominates (mostly in the east) and escalated tensions with the KDP. This has prevented the Kurdish political establishment from putting together a united front in the face of a number of major political developments in recent years, including the ongoing political turmoil in Baghdad.

To prevent internal upheaval in the KRI, it is vital that the PUK does away with internal factionalism and unites behind one leader. The upcoming party congress on December 21 could be its last chance to do that.

PUK factionalism and hostility with KDP

The PUK was founded by Jalal Talabani and several other leaders after the collapse of the Kurdish uprising in 1975. Talabani had defected from the KDP in the early 1970s, largely due to the centralisation of power by the Barzani family, which had dominated the party since its foundation. He wanted to form a more modern party that was not run along familial lines.

The PUK offered a new political home to people who did not want to join the conservative KDP and managed to rekindle the Kurdish struggle in the late 1970s by launching an insurgency against Baghdad.

Tensions between the PUK and the KDP eventually escalated into a full-fledged Kurdish civil war in the 1990s. In 1998, the Clinton administration brokered a peace deal between the Barzani and Talabani families and after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the two reached a power-sharing agreement for the KRI.

This further entrenched the control of the KDP and the PUK over, respectively, the west and the east of the KRI and enabled them to monopolise political and economic power and develop vast clientelistic networks.

Public anger at the growing corruption and entrenchment of the parties led to cracks within the PUK, which unlike the KDP, had always had various centres of power within its leadership.

In 2009, its deputy leader Nawshirwan Mustafa and his supporters split from the party to establish the Gorran Movement. Then, when Talabani, who had been holding the party together for a long time, fell ill in 2012, internal factionalism intensified.

This was reflected in the 2013 elections, when the PUK came third in the region. As a result, the KDP demanded a bigger share of political power and refused to treat the PUK as an equal counterpart, which escalated tensions between the two parties.

As Talabani’s health declined, his wife, Hero Ahmed, took over as de-facto leader, which gave their sons Bafel and Qubad and their nephew Lahur Talabani more power. First Deputy Secretary-General Kosrat Rasul and Second Deputy Secretary-General Barham Salih were gradually marginalised. Rasul threatened to resign while Salih eventually split from the party and formed the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ) in 2018.

This internal jostling for power was playing out during the war against the ISIL (ISIS) group, which gave the United States and other Western countries a serious headache. One senior US diplomat told me: “We had to be in Sulaymaniyah almost every week to ensure a civil war was not breaking out among the PUK’s different factions.”

The fact that the different centres of power in the PUK command their own armed militias also threatened the stability of the KRI in 2017, when the KDP and other Kurdish parties decided to hold an independence referendum.

The Talabani house was not fully on board with the referendum while Rasul and other PUK leaders put their weight behind it. Consequently, in October 2017, the Talabanis allegedly struck a deal with the Iraqi army to withdraw forces loyal to them from the disputed oil-rich Kirkuk, which had been under control of the KRI’s government since 2014.

This intensified the hostility between the KDP and the PUK once again and led to the disintegration of united Peshmerga forces. This also complicated the formation of the new Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) after the 2018 elections and led some to talk of another armed conflict.

The PUK’s internal crisis intensified once again in 2018 when the Iraqi president had to be chosen. According to the power-sharing agreement between Iraq’s Kurds, Sunnis and Shia Muslims, he has to be a Kurd; and according to the power-sharing agreement between the KDP and the PUK, he has to be a PUK member (while a KDP member gets the KRI presidency).

PUK’s political bureau member Mala Bakhtiyar and Salih were competing. Talabani’s older son Bafel and his cousin Lahur, who serves as director of the KRG’s Intelligence Agency and Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG), promised Salih the post of Iraqi president in return for rejoining the PUK and abandoning his CDJ project. This enraged Bakhtiyar who, along with others, quit the party. 

As the crisis in the PUK has deepened over the past few years, it has been the people living in the areas it controls that have borne the brunt of it. The provision of services, such as electricity and water, has deteriorated, basic infrastructure has crumbled, the dysfunction of public institutions has increased and economic stagnation and lack of job opportunities have plagued the region – all due to lack of accountability and political stability under the PUK.

Stabilising the PUK and the KRG

On December 21, the PUK will hold its first congress in nearly 10 years. Under its internal bylaws, it is supposed to be held every three years, but various political setbacks in the party, the war against ISIL, and the leadership that wanted to preserve the status quo pushed it back.

Currently, there are two leadership camps – an official and an unofficial one. The official camp represents the party figures who were elected in the 2010 congress, or the old guard: First Deputy Secretary-General Rasul, Second Deputy Secretary-General Salih, and Hero Ahmed.

The unofficial camp includes Bafel and Qubad Talabani and their cousin Lahur; all three enjoy massive political, economic and military powers in the PUK.

According to reports, the fight between these two camps has been settled through an agreement between Bafel and Rasul. It is supposed to re-engineer the structure of the PUK to satisfy the political and economic interests and ambitions of the different centres of power. Bafel’s circle wants to make sure that Rasul does not become party leader so he himself might run for the post and prevent any potential fallout and rifts during the congress. Salih is another potential contender who Talabani’s house could work with, according to Sadi Ahmed Pira, a member of the PUK.

While Bafel enjoys some popularity among the PUK base, others fear that if he were to become PUK leader, it would turn it into another family-run party, just like the KDP. While this could bring some stability, it would put Kurdish politics under the almost exclusive control of two big families – the Barzanis and the Talabanis.

However, the risk is greater if a leader who could unify the party is not elected. This could lead to the collapse of the PUK, which would allow for the unpreceded domination of the KDP over the whole of KRI. With the PUK – a traditional counterweight to KDP – gone, the nascent democracy of the region would be under a grave threat and another internal conflict – even more likely.

On a national level, the PUK has played a significant role balancing and mediating between Shia religious and political forces in Baghdad. With Iraq facing a major political crisis, the elimination of one moderating and mediating political actor would not bode well for the country.

In this sense, PUK’s success in re-establishing unity is crucial for the stability of both the KRI and the whole of Iraq.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.