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Iraqi Kurdistan's parliamentary and presidential elections have given birth to a viable opposition group for the first time since the autonomous Kurdish region was established in 1991.
Kurdish politics has traditionally been dominated by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led by Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, and the Kurdistan Democratic party, led by Kurdistan region president Massoud Barzani. But the results of last month's election show that the PUK and KDP alliance received only 57% of the total votes – a dramatic decline from the previous election in 2005, when they won more than 85%.
The decline might have been even more severe had it not been for some unprecedentedly vigorous campaigning by PUK officials like Barham Salih and KDP officials like Masrour Barzani (son of Massoud Barzani and potentially a future party leader).
The Change list, which campaigned on an anti-corruption and public services platform, won an unexpected 24% and other opposition groups got at least 15%.
The work of the Kurdistan Regional government is therefore set to face effective scrutiny for the first time since its inception in 1992 and the Kurdish parliament will now operate as a more credible and vibrant entity as opposed to a rubber-stamping institution. With Change holding more than 20 of the 111 assembly seats, and other opposition parties doing well, democracy seems to be properly taking root in Kurdistan and a new culture of criticism and public scrutiny is setting in.
But despite these successes, hard-work and uncertainty still looms around the corner. Internally, Kurdistan must get its house in order. The emergence of Change has led to a combined sense of uncertainty and suspicion that threatens to implode Kurdish politics altogether. The main victim of Change's electoral success is the PUK, which lost to Change in its stronghold province of Sulaymaniah and which has seen its members defect to the offshoot group; it now faces serious questions about its future.
Significant within this context is how the KDP will react. Will it continue with its 50:50 power-sharing agreements and accordingly pass the all-important post of KRG prime minister to PUK man and current Iraqi deputy PM Barham Salih or, in the light of the PUK's decline, will it now consider itself the main source of authority in the region and see no reason to do so?
To survive and retain credibility, the PUK's foremost task will be to embark upon a course of damage control whereby it re-asserts itself, faces up to the KDP and ensures that it gets the KRG premiership.
The uncertainty created by Change also extends beyond the Kurdish borders. Kurdistan's leaders may publicly celebrate their recent electoral success, but privately they know that Change complicates their plans for Iraq's national elections at the end of the year.
Change may seek to build on the momentum of its electoral success by choosing to go it alone at the national elections rather than join the PUK-KDP coalition. In this scenario, the Kurds' influence in Baghdad will be severely weakened, while rival Shia and Sunni parties, still yet to finalise their own coalitions, will become emboldened. Although Change's credibility will be undermined if it does eventually decide to join a Kurdish bloc that it has accused of corruption and cronyism, it could use Kurdish nationalist arguments to justify such a manoeuvre.
The Iraqi prime minister, Nouri-al Maliki, will also be watching developments in Kurdistan with interest. He will look to capitalise on the uncertainty that Change has spawned, since it may weaken the Kurds' so-far-united front over issues like the status of the disputed territories and a proposed oil law.
To discuss these issues and others, Maliki visited Kurdistan last Sunday for the first time since becoming PM and met with Talabani and Barzani. But Kurdistan is still one skirmish away from armed conflict with Baghdad. Since Maliki and Barzani had previously not been on speaking terms, the meeting was a positive step but both men went back to their fortified compounds no closer to a resolution.
Unconfirmed reports also suggest that Maliki is courting Change leader Newshirwan Mustafa. Such an alliance could be used as a bargaining chip by both Mustafa and Maliki. The latter seeks another term in office and knows that though the PUK and KDP are vehemently opposed to this, they could be swayed if a Maliki-Mustafa partnership, public or private, became a real possibility since this would threaten PUK-KDP interests in Baghdad.
Mustafa, meanwhile, may use this to garner concessions, official or otherwise, from the PUK and KDP but will recognise that any public alliance could constitute political suicide in the current climate of tension between Iraq's Arabs and Kurds.
The recent elections may have been a victory for Kurdish democracy, but whether the internal divisions will glitter or tarnish the Kurdish quest for increased autonomy and wealth remains to be seen. Much now depends on how the KRG and Baghdad move forward on issues like Kirkuk – the mother of all the outstanding issues.
The dilemma for the PUK and KDP is that they have long been uncompromising in their insistence that Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution must be implemented, with a referendum to determine the status of the province. Though this position has little or no backing beyond Kurdistan, for them to back away from it now will strengthen the hand of the opposition groups. Intransigence over these issues with Baghdad will therefore continue for some time, with internal divisions creating a dangerously uncertain future for the Kurdish region.
Article published by the Guardian at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/aug/09/democracy-kurdistan-internal-dissent-elections