The Struggle for the Presidency in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

Even without the challenge posed by Daesh, the Kurds of Iraq face a bumpy road ahead this summer with unresolved internal challenges within the Kurdish region itself.

The Kurds of Iraq are doing well according to many analyses of their position, with The Economist and the Financial Times having written glowing reports of the potential the region, along with the willingness of its leaders to be strong allies of Western powers in an area that is experiencing a number of complex and transformative conflicts. The recent visit of the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani, and his high-ranking team, to Washington has been largely reported in an exceptionally positive light.

Indeed, President Barzani’s chief of staff, Fuad Hussein, noted that the two main targets – opening up a discussion about the future of the Kurdistan Region and enhancing the US’s direct support for the Kurds in their fight against Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) – were largely achieved. In relation to  (in an interview with this author)  the future of the Kurdistan Region, it seems that the US government might have gone further than before, with Fuad mentioning President Obama’s focus on the Kurds’ difficult history, the aspirations of the Kurdish people and their hopes for self-determination in the future. Whether there is to be a change in the posture of the US government towards the Kurds remains to be seen, but regional and broader geopolitical forces are certainly pushing the US into being more accepting of the Kurds of Iraq.

However, the Kurdistan Region in general, and President Barzani in particular, face a very serious challenge in the summer months of 2015. This challenge is domestic in its nature and centres on the (re-)selection of the president. The issues at hand bring together:

  • legal concerns – there is no agreed process to select a new president, or re-select the incumbent Barzani
  • significant political contestation – the leaderships of the resurgent Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran movement are co-ordinating themselves to such a degree that they may be on the path to unifying their ranks into a single party, and to then move to reshape the political landscape of the Kurdistan Region
  • questions of legacy and integrity – Massoud Barzani is a leader with the weight of his father’s (Mustafa Barzani) legacy on his shoulders, and has a strong desire to ensure that history views him favourably in the decades ahead. He wishes to be seen as Kurdistan’s lawful president, rather than securing power through underhand deals or authoritarian moves
  • a power struggle over the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) – the opponents of the current Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP)-dominated KRG now see their opportunity to gain control of key portfolios in the KRG, in exchange for finding a compromise with Barzani over the question of the presidency. This compromise could well see changes in key sectors – including security and natural resources.

Unresolved Questions Around the Presidency

The question of the presidency should have been on the radar screen of Kurdish elites and the parliament ever since President Barzani’s term in office was extended for two years in July 2013. This agreement – controversial at the time – followed months of wrangling between the KDP, PUK and Gorran, and left Barzani exposed to the accusation of wanting to maintain his hold on the position beyond what was seen by some as the constitutional term. The problem was, at this time, that there was no constitution in place in the Kurdistan Region – with the term of the presidency controlled by earlier laws passed by the Kurdistan National Assembly (KNA) in 1992. And so there was a clear expectation that, over the course of the next two years, legislation would be passed to ensure that whoever were to become president in 2015 would do so through a duly ratified and legal process.

Perhaps due to the appearance of Daesh in 2014, or maybe due to profound inertia in the Kurdistan Region’s governmental and legislative processes, this legislation has not been presented nor ratified by the KNA. So, from the beginning of August 2015, the Kurdistan Region will probably be without a sitting president and will enter a period of considerable political uncertainty, contestation and instability at a time when it faces extremely serious security and economic problems.

The contestation over the presidency occurs at an unstable moment in Kurdish domestic politics. The rise of Daesh in mid-2014, the targeting of minorities across northern Iraq, such as the Yezidis, and the sudden attacks against the Kurdistan Region in August 2014 that saw the much-vaunted peshmerga forces retreat in the face of an unrelenting onslaught, has undermined the ability of President Barzani to present himself as a strong leader, his KRG as a capable government and the peshmerga forces as fit for purpose. An economic embargo on the Kurdistan Region by the government of Iraq, in response to the Kurds’ decision to export oil independent of Iraqi state control, has added to these problems.

The PUK has benefited from this situation. In 2009, the party was struggling when some of its most capable and popular members left to form the Gorran Movement led by Nawshirwan Mustafa. The PUK has since benefited from being seen as an opposition party, unsullied by the deleterious effects of being in government (even though PUK members sit as ministers, with the deputy prime minister being none other than Jalal Talabani’s son, Qubad), and with its peshmerga forces having a relatively ‘good war’ against Daesh, compared to those of the KDP – which has had to contend with a strong popular backlash over its forces’ failure to defend the Yezidis from Daesh’s genocidal attacks.

Now, with the clock rapidly counting down the hours until President Barzani must stand down, the PUK seems to be managing its own internal leadership issues, with Hero Talabani and Barham Salih seemingly finding some common ground. The party is also building bridges with Nawshirwan and the Gorran Movement. These repairs to the splits that have been painfully evident in the PUK-Gorran ranks for about five years have a powerful impact on the nature of the sitting KNA, with the combined ranks of the PUK and Gorran being greater than the number of KDP MPs (forty-two and thirty-eight respectively) – although less than the majority needed to dictate who should be president (fifty-six), thus making the much smaller Islamist block (sixteen seats) the king-maker in this process.

And it is this simple set of parliamentary and electoral maths that has brought the Kurdish elites to a stand-off. No one in the PUK, Gorran or any other party disputes that the only possible person capable of filling the post of president is Massoud Barzani himself. As the undisputed leader in what remains the most powerful party in the land, he would be very likely to win a popular vote to become president. Indeed, in 2009, he won two-thirds of the popular vote and it is likely he would do so again in 2015 – which is why the KDP is adamant that the principle of a popular vote should be maintained.

The PUK and Gorran, on the other hand, with their lack of a candidate, and their still fissiparous tendencies, would prefer what they call a ‘parliamentary’ system, whereby the president is elected by MPs – thus allowing them to exercise control over the position and therefore be able to gain significant concessions from the KDP. Such a process has never happened in the election of the president and would require new legislation – legislation that could not be prepared in time for the end of the president’s term on 19 August 2015.

As a result there is a stand-off. In all likelihood, Massoud Barzani will formally notify the KRG prime minister, his nephew Nechirvan, and the KNA speaker, Youssef Sadiq of the Gorran Movement, of his intent to stand down sometime at the beginning of June. This will trigger sixty days of negotiations. Massoud’s aides are keen to emphasise that his position is one of simply doing what the established law and practice require , which is for him to stand down, such is his focus on maintaining his legacy and integrity.

Negotiations Ahead

How will these negotiations then develop? It is difficult to imagine that Massoud will not retain the presidency, but it may well be a presidency that has its powers seriously curtailed. Gorran figures seem to be particularly focused, for example, on removing the title of ‘commander in chief of the peshmerga’ from the presidency not, it seems, because of any fear of Massoud becoming a dictator in charge of the military, but because no one can guarantee how Massoud’s successor would use such powers in the future. The PUK seems occupied by the economic performance of Kurdistan, and the constant brinkmanship that occurs between Erbil and Baghdad over the export of oil from the Kurdistan Region, the contestation over Kirkuk (where election results indicate that the province strongly supports the PUK), and the provision of revenue from Baghdad. For the PUK, and for Gorran, gaining control of the oil sector in Kurdistan, which would include replacing the incumbent Minister of Natural Resources Ashti Hawrami, would probably be viewed as an extremely valuable prize, yet one that the KDP leadership would probably be loathed to give.

Whichever way the negotiations over the presidency go, summer in the Kurdistan Region is going to be politically very hot and agreements made in this period will set the scene for the further democratisation of the Kurdistan Region, or its retrenchment into opaque deal-making between factions, or the rise of authoritarianism as one party seeks to impose its will over the others. The combination of presidential negotiations, economic hardship and serious security challenges related to the consolidation of Daesh, presents a potential perfect storm in the Kurdistan Region, and one that could have unforeseen consequences if allowed to deepen.


Gareth Stansfield

Senior Associate Fellow

View profile

Explore our related content