The two largest Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), are likely to agree eventually on a presidential candidate, but in the meantime several hats are in the ring.
Iraq’s presidency, a largely ceremonial position, is usually held by a Sunni Kurd, while the premiership has been the preserve of Shiites for more than a decade. But Kurds are having trouble agreeing on a candidate, which could threaten their essential united front in Baghdad.
Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbusi announced Sept. 18 that presidential candidates could begin submitting their applications through parliament’s website.
The next day, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) announced it was nominating Barham Salih. The PUK didn’t discuss the nomination beforehand with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is its political ally in the Kurdistan region. The KDP also wants to nominate a candidate — and has several in mind. The KDP, led by Massoud Barzani, is the larger party.
The PUK believes the presidency should be held by one of its own members, as per a previous agreement concluded under the late party leader, President Jalal Talabani. Salih, a former PUK leader, split from the party in 2017 to form his own party, citing what he called mismanagement of the Kurdish provinces. He participated in the May general elections and his party won two parliament seats.
If Salih intends to accept the nomination, he will have to withdraw from his party, the Coalition for Democracy and Justice, and return to the PUK, according to Mullah Bakhtyar, a PUK leader. Bakhtyar spoke during a Sept. 18 joint press conference with US envoy to Iraq Brett McGurk.
Despite the historical ties between the PUK and Iran, McGurk’s presence in Sulaimaniyah to hold meetings with PUK leaders on the day of Salih’s nomination suggests there might be a US-Iranian consensus on that nomination.
However, Salih’s nomination “deal” doesn’t seem to be ripe just yet because his nomination primarily requires the approval of the KDP, as well as the Shiite parties forming the largest parliamentary bloc.
Shakhwan Abdullah, a KDP leader, said the PUK’s nomination of Salih came as a “surprise” to his party.
“The KDP was hoping that the PUK would consult the KDP about their presidential candidate before officially declaring his name. After all, the two parties are allies and are both running for the same post,” he told Al-Monitor.
He added that the KDP has more seats (25) in the Iraqi parliament than the PUK (18). He said he believes the presidency of the republic should be the KDP’s, and that if the PUK wanted to nominate someone, it should have consulted the KDP first.
Concerning the previous agreement between the two parties, which provided for giving the PUK the Iraqi presidency while leaving the presidency of the Kurdistan region to the KDP, Abdullah said the agreement “was nullified” after Barzani stepped down in October as president of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the post was abolished.
Abdullah added, “These nominations also need to be discussed with the Shiite allies because the post of president of the republic needs the approval of two-thirds of the members of parliament, a percentage that can’t be guaranteed by the Kurdish blocs alone.”
Barzani’s KDP wants to nominate former Finance Minister Hoshyar Zebari, former Deputy Prime Minister Rowsch Nuri Shaways and KDP Secretary-General Fazil Mirani for the post of president, according to one of party’s parliament members in Baghdad, Bashar al-Kiki. The KDP argues that each Kurdish party should have the right to nominate one or more candidates and then discuss their potential. Ideally, the groups would be able to narrow the choices down to one winner.
If the Kurds can’t agree on one candidate soon, then more than one name will be presented to parliament, which will select one person, as happened this month with Halbusi’s election as parliament speaker.
If the Kurds don’t go before the Baghdad parliament as a single bloc, presenting a single candidate, it will be tough for any candidate to secure the necessary two-thirds majority. Another session will need to be held, and whoever gets the simple majority will be the winner, as per the Iraqi Constitution.
Kurds shun this scenario as it is fraught with danger. This is especially true in the event that figures from other Iraqi groups run for the post. Such a scenario would depend on the ability of Kurdish parties to win over the rest of the Iraqi parties, especially the Shiites, knowing that they usually prefer the pro-Iran PUK. However, the Shiite blocs are still maneuvering to form the coalition with the most parliament seats, and one bloc could still forge an alliance with Barzani’s party, which has the largest number of seats for a single party.
However, Ahmed al-Asadi, a spokesman for Al-Binaa Alliance, said the alliance accepts Salih’s candidacy provided there is consensus “among Kurds.” The alliance includes the Fatah Alliance, the State of Law Coalition and other smaller parties, and is led by Popular Mobilization Units commander Hadi al-Ameri and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The statement calling for consensus reflects Al-Binaa’s desire not to lose any Kurdish ally to the alliance between Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s backers and Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Sairoon bloc. Abadi and Sadr are also trying to form the largest parliamentary bloc and name the next prime minister.
However, it doesn’t look like things will reach a critical stage, as the Kurdish parties are aware of the significance of their unity in Baghdad to be able to achieve significant gains in Kurdistan. Also, the presidential post is deemed an “honorary or protocol” post because the president holds no broad powers. Current President Fuam Masum has decided not to seek another term.
Therefore, the Barzani party’s statement regarding the nomination of KDP leaders for the same post is probably only a means to pressure the PUK and obtain other gains, such as Cabinet appointments in the new government or improvements for Kurdistan.
Most importantly, Salih is accepted by seemingly all political parties and respected by the sectarian and nationalist components of the country.