Since early October, the southern provinces of Iraq have been consumed by protests and strikes. Participants have declared their resistance a “revolution” against an irredeemably corrupt and sectarian political class. Iraqis, the protestors declared, are one people: a people free of ethno-sectarian distinctions, with demands that the parties that cling to these distinctions to justify their existence must be divested of all political power. While ruthlessly attempting to suppress protests, the Iraqi government has promised legal and political reforms, including amendments to the constitution and electoral laws to ensure greater accountability of public officeholders to constituents. Yet some of the Kurdistan Region-Iraq’s (KRI) elites are suspicious that the government’s reform agenda is a “conspiracy” against Kurdish entitlements masquerading as a good faith effort to placate the protestors. The region’s hegemonic parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), are concerned that legal, constitutional, and procedural reforms may overhaul the institutions that guarantee their positions of influence in the federal government and secure their territorial claims, namely their constitutional entitlement to jointly administer the disputed territories (i.e., areas south of the KRI’s border jointly claimed by the federal government and the KRI).

The Kurdistan Region’s parties professed in a joint statement that they are “with the legitimate demands of the people of Iraq,” but they insist upon the “preservation of stability in Iraq, its laws and political institutions … particularly in the areas of Kurdistan outside the Kurdistan Region” and “the preserv[ation of] the federal system … and the rights and competencies of the Kurdistan Region and constitutional entities.” In essence, the parties are unwilling to accept any drastic changes to the federal state’s territorial and institutional framework and, in line with post-referendum policy, support a stable Iraq with an autonomous Kurdistan Region against threats to the status quo. Although constitutional amendments and changes to the mohasasa ta’ifa — Iraq’s informal ethno-sectarian apportionment system from which both the KDP and PUK benefit — may be procedurally difficult to pass, measures already undertaken by the government to expand social welfare spending and which have divested provincial councils of administrative authority may alter the balance of power between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In addition, they intensify subnational partisan struggles that undermine the KDP and PUK’s fragile regional power-sharing institutions and may leave the parties unprepared to bargain effectively in Baghdad.

The most immediate threat to Kurdish interests (as articulated by the KDP and the PUK) seems to emanate not from the possibility of an overhaul of the constitutional order and mohasasa, but from the vicissitudes of partisan politics within the current institutional framework. The Kurdish parties are apprehensive about the possibility of Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation. His premiership was a welcome reprieve from the five years of disastrous Baghdad-Erbil relations during which region’s budget was suspended over the KRG Ministry of Natural Resources’ unilateral contracts with international oil companies. In January 2019, Abdul- Mahdi’s government and the Kurdistan Region reached an agreement whereby the KRG agreed to export over 250,000 barrels of oil per day via the State Organization for the Marketing of Oil (SOMO) in exchange for the region’s share of the budget. Despite not carrying out its end of the bargain, the KRG has continued to receive its budget. The possibility of Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation presents the risk that a new prime minister will deal more harshly with the region. In a Nov. 19 meeting in Baghdad, the KDP and PUK joined a coalition of 12 Iraqi parties (including Fatah, Nasir, State of Law, Hikma, and others) and released a statement giving Prime Minister Abdul-Mahdi’s government 45 days to enact reforms or face a withdrawal of confidence. However, the KDP and PUK’s participation may be interpreted as bet-hedging in the event of Abdul-Mahdi’s resignation rather than as an ultimatum to the prime minister.

Even if Abdul-Mahdi remains in office, his promises to expand the social welfare system — the path of least resistance for a government that must do something — may force lawmakers to cut spending elsewhere. Given his tenuous hold on the premiership, it is foreseeable that Abdul-Mahdi may finally succumb to pressure to penalize the Kurdistan Region financially for the latter’s failure to surrender its oil to SOMO. The Kurdistan Region’s bloated civil service and public welfare system went bankrupt over the previous five years of budget disputes with Baghdad, calling into question the KDP and PUK’s legitimacy and culminating in destabilizing strikes and demonstrations throughout Kurdistan. Future cuts would have disastrous effects as the KRG not only prepares itself to manage a new influx of thousands of refugees from Syria, but also expands its public payroll of teachers and military personnel by the thousands to placate its own restive constituency.

Provincial Councils

On Oct. 26, the Council of Representatives voted to dissolve all 15 provincial councils outside the Kurdistan Region until the slated April 1, 2020 provincial elections. In doing so, it circumvented the Law of Governorates’ requirement that the governor or one-third of members of the provincial council propose dissolution to the Council of Representatives. On Nov. 12, the Council of Ministers announced that provincial elections would be postponed indefinitely. These decisions put an indeterminate halt on a return to joint administration in the disputed territories and diminish hopes of reviving the moribund normalization, census, and referendum processes under Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution.

Although provincial councils are notoriously corrupt and inefficient, the decision to dissolve them has met with fierce criticism from the Kurdish parties and provincial council members, who claim that the decision was “illegal.” The KDP and PUK’s participation in local governing coalitions has been critical to securing their claims to what they regard as Kurdish areas of the disputed territories, particularly in lieu of progress on the implementation of Article 140. Executive posts in the governorates give the KDP and PUK control over the local implementation of national policy and the distribution of foreign aid. In the case of Kirkuk, the governor assumed the authority to mediate the negotiation of oil production sharing agreements between the KRG, the federal government, and foreign oil companies. Participation in subnational politics also incentivizes coalition building across ethno-sectarian lines that can translate directly into forging important alliances at the national level, as was the case with the KDP’s alignment with Sunni Arab governors of Ninewa.

Less than a month after the Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum in September 2017, Iraqi federal forces reoccupied the disputed territories, replacing fugitive Kirkuk Governor Najmaddin Karim of the PUK with Acting Governor Rakan al-Jabouri. In Kirkuk, as well as in other parts of the disputed territories, Arab civil servants replaced Kurdish ones, Kurdish farmers were displaced, and ostensible measures to evict squatters resulted in the forced removal of Kurdish villagers from their homes, reminding Kurds of the Arabization that occurred under the Ba’ath regime. Although Ninewa’s provincial council remained intact, the KDP struggled to maintain its foothold there. Its loyal Sinjar district administration has remained in exile in Duhok and the Council of Representatives sacked Governor Nawfal al-Akoub, as well as his KDP deputy governor, after a tragic ferry accident on the Tigris River. The KDP accused the federal government (namely, Iraqi President and PUK member Barham Salih) of using the disaster as a pretext to centralize power. Despite forming another administration with the Ataa Movement, a Sunni Arab party backed by Hashd al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Forces) and its political leadership, the KDP and the Ninewa administration continued to battle with federal ministries over director general appointments.

In light of the federal government’s increasingly intrusive and hostile stance toward subnational administrations, the move represents to the KDP and PUK a continuation of the virtually unchecked administrative centralization trend that followed the Oct. 16, 2017 Iraqi Army offensive into the disputed territories. Since the decision last month, the federal government has announced corruption investigations against Kurdish provincial council members in Kirkuk and Ninewa. In addition, acting Kirkuk Governor al-Jabouri’s recent announcement that his administration will build 5,000 residential units in the governorate for needy families and pensioners as part of the central government’s reform package would only seem to fuel fears of future demographic changes. Provincial council members in Ninewa and Kirkuk have filed lawsuits with the Federal Supreme Court seeking a repeal of parliament’s decision and have announced that they will continue their activities while they challenge the legality of the dissolutions.

Notwithstanding compelling reasons to form a united front to resist centralization, the latest administrative reforms will pose challenges to the formation of a cohesive Kurdish front in the capital. While the KDP moves to install its governor in Ninewa, the dissolution of local councils and the indefinite adjournment of provincial elections preclude the PUK nominee for Kirkuk governor from taking office after over a year of grueling bipartisan talks. Because it balances power with the KDP presidency and premiership, the PUK regards the governorship as conditional to power sharing with the KDP in the regional government. While expressing concern about the Council of Representatives’ decision, the PUK has reserved its harshest criticism for the KDP whose foot-dragging, it alleged, was responsible for denying the PUK its entitlement. Meanwhile, in an apparent bid to strengthen the KDP’s position in Ninewa while the stay on parliament’s dissolution of the local councils remains in effect, the KDP-led provincial council voted on Nov. 19 to remove the Sunni Arab governor, Mansor Mari’d, and replace him with the KDP deputy governor, Sirwan Rojbayani, until provincial council elections are held. These setbacks come after a series of decisions by KDP that have isolated the PUK in the regional government, including the refusal to confirm PUK officials as well as attempts to narrow the scope of the deputy prime minister’s powers and create a shadow cabinet of KDP “assistants” loyal to Prime Minister Masrour Barzani. As a result, some PUK members have even threatened to withdraw from the government.

The intensification of partisan quarrelling also raises doubts about the Kurdish parties’ ability to compete in the disputed territories in the event that early parliamentary elections are held. The instability that followed the peshmerga retreat from those areas displaced tens of thousands of Kurds, including KDP party bosses, leading to fears that the PUK and KDP would lose their electoral dominance in Kirkuk in the 2018 general elections. Thanks to massive fraud facilitated by easily hackable voting machines and new voter ID laws, the parties were able to avoid humiliating defeats in Kirkuk and Ninewa. But repeating the same trick twice would be difficult. To mitigate potential losses, Kurdish parties including the KDP and PUK had formed a list in anticipation of the now indefinitely adjourned 2020 provincial council elections. However, absent performance on the bilateral agreement to seat the PUK governor, the future of inter-party cooperation in the disputed territories is on shaky ground.

Back to Baghdad

Iraqi President Barham Salih of the PUK and Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani of the KDP have led efforts to establish a consensus among Kurdish parties on reforms and constitutional amendments and to negotiate with national parties in Erbil and Baghdad. However, the KDP and PUK have also sought to monopolize transactions at the national level. Gorran, which shares power with the KDP and PUK in the regional government, along with the Kurdistan Islamic Union and Kurdistan Islamic Group were absent from the recent meeting in Baghdad. 

Also notably absent were former Kurdistan Region President and KDP President Masoud Barzani and PUK Deputy Secretary-General Kosrat Rasul, indicating that the KDP and PUK will face challenges to party discipline as they attempt to salvage a favorable political climate in Baghdad. President Nechirvan Barzani has gravitated toward Salih as a partner in forging a national consensus, both in his role as president of Iraq and as the possible successor to Jalal Talabani as secretary-general of the PUK. However, Salih’s increasingly prominent role in setting the reform agenda may be resisted by Masoud Barzani, who still regards the former’s election to the Iraqi presidency as the result of a breach of the PUK’s alleged agreement to elect a KDP candidate. Former President Barzani has instead sought to maintain his partnership with Rasul, Salih’s main contender for the secretary-general position in the upcoming PUK party congress, who has assumed the role of mediator in negotiations with the KDP, often to his politburo’s frustration. In addition, Masoud Barzani has been more reluctant than his nephew or the Iraqi president to place conditions on support for Abdul-Mahdi’s government. Although Masoud Barzani resigned from the regional presidency over two years ago, he is still regarded as a first-among-equals in the Kurdistan Region political class (even a marja’ in the KDP) and thus possesses veto power over all decisions affecting the region. Therefore, his and Rasul’s absence from these meetings signal that agreements reached there will not be the final word on the Kurdistan Region’s positions in Baghdad.

Although the Iraqi government may water down or simply fail to pass the ambitious reforms it is promising, decisions such as the dissolution of provincial councils signify a trend toward centralization that threatens the entitlements of the Kurdish parties and, more importantly, the successful negotiation of a return to joint federal-regional administration in the disputed territories. However, while there are efforts in both parties to unite on a common platform to increase their bargaining leverage in the capital, the KDP and PUK are just as concerned with advancing their individual interests at the subnational level. The KDP’s uncompromising stance against the PUK in the regional government, along with a lack of intra-party consensus on who will lead the Kurdish delegation, may obstruct the formation of a cohesive Kurdish delegation in Baghdad to meet the most serious challenges the region has faced since October 2017. Meanwhile relying on the good graces of an accommodating prime minister while recklessly pursuing habits of poor governance at the regional level reproduces the conditions for a resurgence of unrest and instability in the Kurdistan Region.  


Megan Connelly is a JD/Ph.D. student at SUNY University at Buffalo and a Jaeckle Center for Law, Democracy, and Governance fellow. Follow her on Twitter @meganconnelly48.

Photo by Yunus Keles/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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