Middle East

After Iraqi elections, Iraq Kurdistan region in the spotlight – analysis

The Kurdistan Democratic Party came in either third or fourth place in Iraq’s recent elections, if the vote tally remains consistent over the next days. That will give it around 32-33 seats, meaning it will play a key role in coalition politics of the next Iraqi government.

Other Kurdish parties also received seats, including the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) with 16 seats.  

“So far there are no official agreements on such matter. Hoshyar Zebari has been appointed as the negotiator for the KDP. There have been understandings before the elections, but the KDP does not do agreements with any side against another,” Showan Mohammed, head of the KDP office in Baghdad, told Rudaw, a news channel.  

For the Kurds this is important. However, low turnout has meant that it appears many are cynical or apathetic about what might come next. This is because the Kurdish region has suffered some setbacks.

Despite an impressive economy, security and relative stability, the region has been under pressure from Iran and Turkey in recent years. Turkey has built military bases in the Kurdish autonomous region, claiming to be fighting “terrorists” which Turkey alleges are present there. Iran also has carried out attacks against Iranian Kurdish dissidents who live in northern Iraq. 

Another problem is the divisions in Kurdish society. While Erbil and Dohuk generally vote strongly for the KDP, the governorate of Sulimaniyah is dominated by PUK. While many countries have regional political voting patterns, the Kurdish region has historic divisions that date back to a civil war in the 1990s. This means that neighboring countries and other parties in Iraq tend to try to play Kurds off against one another.

For instance, internal divisions undermined Kurdish resolve in 2017 to hold onto Kirkuk. A conspiracy by pro-Iranian militias and pressure by Qasem Soleimani helped create a fiasco in which Kirkuk, which had been controlled by Kurdish forces, was abandoned under the weight of Baghdad’s pressure and Iran.

Similarly, an independence referendum in 2017 found the Kurdish region at odds with the US and others. 

Things have changed a bit in recent years. The US has moved most of its forces to the Kurdish region because of safety concerns.

This came after 2019 tensions between the US and Iran and US president Donald Trump’s bizarre decision to twice try to leave Syria and claims he would use Iraq to “watch Iran.”

Iraq rejected that use and Iraq’s pro-Iran parties want the US to leave. But those parties suffered dismally in the elections, most probably because they massacred Iraqis during the 2019 protests.

Muqtada al-Sadr once against holds the keys to power in Baghdad. He appears amenable to a small US presence. He might also work with Kurdish parties to secure a coalition.  

A poster of Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq June 21, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/AHMED SAAD/FILE PHOTO)A poster of Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, Iraq June 21, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/AHMED SAAD/FILE PHOTO)

According to Rudaw, PUK co-chair Bafel Talabani on election day told media that they look to keep the presidency and their candidate is Barham Salih, who will be serving a second term if he is approved. While Bafel played a controversial role in the 2017 Kirkuk events, he has now risen to seemingly push his cousin Lahur Talibani out of power in Sulimaniyah. This wouldn’t matter that much except Lahur played a key role in relations with Kurds in Syria and also it means the PUK, already suffering in low vote turnout, is more divided. 

Iranian media interviewed a member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union this week and affirmed that the low turnout appears to mean many are tired of the corruption in Iraq and pessimistic about the future. This is good news for Iran because it can use this to infiltrate a divided and weak Iraq.

Iran, unlike the Saddam regime or the regimes of Assad and Turkey, has never sought to erase the Kurds or genocide them. But Iran’s close relationship with Kurds in Iraq doesn’t mean it has the best interests of the autonomous region at heart. It wants the region divided.  

Tasnim reports that “regarding the effects of the Iraqi parliamentary elections on the upcoming parliamentary elections in the Kurdistan Region, the member of the Islamic Union in the Kurdistan Regional Parliament said ‘The Iraqi elections were seen, there may be changes in the regional parliamentary elections, but the essence of the matter in this region remains the same and the crises will continue.’”

The interview went on to note “corruption in Kurdistan region irreparable blows to national unity in the two ruling parties of the Kurdistan Region will continue to compete for party privileges and high positions in Baghdad, and the issue of uniting the Kurdish currents is not achievable, and this will affect the problems of the region and the central government.”

For Iran, which saw a weakening of support for its militia-based Fatah Alliance in Baghdad, the Kurdish parties may be a welcome source of potential work for Tehran. This is because Iran sees them as potential allies in the broader context, despite the existence of Iranian Kurdish dissidents in Erbil and despite the close ties between KDP and the US.  

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