The Kurds could be kingmakers in Iraq’s new government

But only if they unite.

Hassan Al-Adari, head of the political body of the Sadrist bloc and Sadrists delegation meets with Hoshyar Zebari, head of the Kurdish delegation to negotiations on forming the new government after the parliamentary elections in Baghdad on November 5, 2021 [File: AP/Hadi Mizban]

On November 30, Iraq’s Electoral Commission finally announced the results of the October 10 legislative elections. It confirmed that Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s political bloc had secured 73 out of 329 seats in Parliament, thus emerging as the election winner. Meanwhile, its rival the Shia al-Fatah alliance – which is affiliated with Iran-backed militias of the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMFs) – lost ground in the vote and has decided to reject the results.

These tensions within the Shia political elite have opened the door for a new political arrangement in which Iraq’s leading Kurdish parties could play a significant role. Sadr has already indicated that he will not deal with some groups within al-Fatah and the State of Law party of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and will instead seek “a national majority government” through an agreement with the main Sunni and Kurdish political forces.

If Sadr’s effort is successful in producing a stable government, it could strengthen the Kurds’ hand in Iraqi politics and help resolve long-standing disputes between Baghdad and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). Such a positive outcome, however, would depend on the ability of the main Kurdish parties to keep a united front in talks, which would mean overcoming their internal fragmentation and rivalries.

Intra-Kurdish tensions

Since the early 1990s, Iraq’s Kurdish region has been ruled by a power-sharing consensus between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both of which command Peshmerga military forces loyal to them. In recent years, however, the PUK has been losing ground to KDP and newly emerged parties, which has undermined this arrangement. In fact, the October election skewed even further the balance of power in KDP’s favour.

Of the 63 seats won by Kurdish parties in the new parliament, 31 are held by the KDP and just 18 by the PUK. In a significant development, the KDP managed to win 2 seats in each of the PUK’s heartlands – Kirkuk and Sulaimaniyah.

These results will have significant implications for the relations between the two parties, especially on coming up with consensus candidates for the Iraqi presidency and governorship of Kirkuk.

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003 following the US invasion, the post of Iraq’s president has been allocated to a representative of the Kurdish community through a power-sharing agreement with the Sunnis and Shia. And then another arrangement dating from the same period between the KDP and the PUK granted the right to choose the candidate to the latter in exchange for the KRI’s presidency going to a KDP figure.

A similar inter-party consensus was established regarding the governorship of Kirkuk, which was held by a Kurd until 2017. Although Kirkuk is part of the “disputed territories”, which have a significant Kurdish population but are not part of the KRI, it has traditionally been seen to fall within PUK’s sphere of influence, given that many of its leaders hail from the province.

But the KDP no longer sees a reason to heed past arrangements, especially since it perceives the powerful leaders of the PUK as having betrayed it in the aftermath of the 2017 Kurdish independence referendum, when PUK Peshmerga withdrew from Kirkuk, as Shia militias sent by Baghdad to “punish” the Kurdish leadership advanced. The Iraqi government then appointed an Arab as the new governor.

The KDP now wants a say in both the appointment of the new president and the new Kirkuk governor. The core PUK, meanwhile, still believes that it has the military power to resist any attack on its interests.

In February 2019, the KDP and the PUK reached an agreement to nominate a new Kurdish governor, but it has not been implemented yet for two reasons. First a conflict between the faction of PUK leader Lahur Talabani and Masoud Barzani, leader of the KDP, has prevented the two parties from coming up with a consensus candidate. Second, the continuing presence of pro-Iranian Shia militias in the province and Baghdad’s reluctance to concede to the appointment of a new governor are also major challenges.

However, recent changes within the PUK may increase the chance of convergence between the two Kurdish parties. Both the KDP leadership and the current leadership of the PUK are united in opposition to Lahur Talabani, who was removed from his post as co-president of the PUK in July this year.

In early November, the PUK’s Political Bureau confirmed his expulsion from the party, which paves the way for the PUK’s other co-president, Bafel Talabani, to officially abolish the co-presidency system and take the reins of the party. This could open the door for a more comprehensive deal with the KDP in Kirkuk, the Iraqi presidency and other outstanding issues.

An opportunity for Kurds

In the October 10 election, Kurdish parties increased their seats in the Iraqi parliament from 58 to 63. Sunni factions have around 70 seats in total, but unlike the Kurdish parties, they do not have that much power on the ground and do not directly run the Sunni regions. For this reason, the Kurds have more potential to play a king maker’s role.

In a “national majority government” with the composition Sadr envisions, Kurdish parties would have the opportunity not only to increase their number of posts, but also to transform from being a participant in the Iraqi cabinet to a real decision-maker.

Apart from increased leverage in negotiating government posts, the improved electoral performance of the Kurdish parties could also help them in negotiations on a number of thorny issues with Baghdad.

First, there is the question of budget allocation and the distribution of oil profits. In 2014, amid tensions between then KRI President Masoud Barzani and the former Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki, Baghdad decided to cease allocating the Kurdish portion of the national budget, accusing Erbil of not delivering the agreed amount of oil to the State Organisation for Marketing of Oil.

Since then, several agreements have been signed, but failed to resolve the dispute. In June this year, Baghdad and Erbil reached a new deal, which resulted in the former sending 200 billion dinars ($137m) per month to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). However, this agreement is only valid for this year’s budget, so the Kurdish parties will have the opportunity to renegotiate within the government formation talks.

Second, there is the question of the “disputed territories”, which include the province of Kirkuk and over a dozen districts in Nineveh, Diyala and Salahaddin provinces. The status of these areas was supposed to be settled by the KRI and Baghdad after the Iraqi constitution was promulgated in 2005, but that never happened. During the fight against ISIS, KRI’s Peshmerga forces were able to take control of some of these areas, but in the aftermath of the referendum, they were forced to withdraw.

Since then, there has been very limited administrative, security and political cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil in these areas, with the pro-Iranian armed groups dominating the security landscape.

In the October elections, Kurdish parties performed quite well in these areas, with all five new seats won in disputed territories in Nineveh, Salahaddin, and Diyala provinces.

Kurdish parties now have six out of 12 seats in Kirkuk, and 11 out of 31 seats in Nineveh. Increased Kurdish political representation in these areas can help in negotiations over their status. What the KRG can realistically hope to secure is Baghdad’s approval to appoint a Kurdish governor for Kirkuk and joint security administration in the disputed territories.

Increased ISIS activity in these areas makes such security coordination all the more necessary, but that would have to involve reaching some kind of a settlement with the pro-Iranian militias currently deployed in these areas. That could be hard to achieve, unless Sadr changes his mind about isolating al-Fateh and other Shia factions.

Regardless, a “national majority government” could be a significant opportunity for the KRI’s leadership to secure important gains. But if they do not unite in pursuit of the best interest of the Kurdish community, then their failure can come back to haunt them.

Like the majority of other traditional political forces, the leading Kurdish parties have also seen declining support. While the KDP increased its parliamentary presence by six seats, the number of votes it received actually fell by more than 100,000 votes in KRI’s provinces compared to the 2018 election. A new party, the New Generation attracted the votes of a large number of disgruntled Kurds, winning nine seats. This, along with persistent protests across the KRI in the past four years, reflects the growing discontent among Iraq’s Kurdish population towards their leaders.

If the Kurdish traditional leadership fails to secure major gains for its people from the advantageous position it finds itself in at the moment, another outbreak of popular anger may follow soon.

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