The Middle East Channel

Iraqi Kurdistan's historic election

On September 21, Iraqi Kurdistan held paliamentary elections, which for the first time in 22 years, have fundamentally altered the region's political landscape. Almost 3 million voters participated in the elections, with a total of 1,129 candidates competing for 111 parliamentary seats. While official results have been delayed by allegations of fraud, what the elections have made abundantly clear is the sweeping dissatisfaction with the Kurdistan Regional Government.

From its emergence in 1991, the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq has been ruled by an alliance of two parties: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), led by Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by Iraq's ailing President Jalal Talabani. This duopoly was broken on September 21, when Talabani's party appeared to hemmorage votes to the Gorran (Change) Movement, which split from the PUK in 2009. Preliminary results announced by the Independent High Electoral Commission on Sunday in which the KDP got 71,9004 votes, Gorran 44,6095 votes, PUK 33,2386 votes, Islamic Union 17,8681 votes, and Islamic Group 11,3260 votes. Eleven seats are reserved for minorities and religious sects. Gorran's jump to the second-biggest party in the parliament marks a new era in Kurdish politics. 

Gorran's ascendance reflects widespread public disaffection with corruption and poor services in the KRG, especially areas held by the PUK. The PUK's inability to meet rising public expectations and institute reforms demanded by its liberal base has proven to be its downfall. The KDP has managed to retain its position of dominance primarily through the threat of repression as well as a patronage system greased with oil money. Still, shifts in the Kurdish political landscape make continuation of the status quo an unlikely prospect. 

The PUK's fall from grace has gradually unfolded over more than a decade. The PUK and KDP effectively partitioned Iraqi Kurdistan among themselves in the early 1990s. The PUK's government centered on Sulaymaniyah province, with the KDP holding Erbil and Duhok. In 2007, the two parties signed a formal unification agreement creating a single government but more or less maintaining the division of spoils between them. 

In the early 2000s, a reformist group within the PUK proposed some packages to address corruption and nepotism within the party. However, the PUK's old guard refused to meet any of the demands, allowing internal discontent to fester. Meanwhile, the PUK -- which always presented itself as a progressive-reformist counterpart to the KDP -- was increasingly tainted by the repression and cronyism for which its coalition partner was notorious.

In 2006, Talabani's deputy and a PUK founder, Nawshirwan Mustafa, resigned from the PUK and built a huge media company. In 2009, he founded Gorran, which became a new home for the reformist group of PUK leaders and cadres, as well as members and supporters. Surprisingly, the just emergent movement won 25 seats in the 2009 parliamentary elections, defeating PUK in its Sulamaniyah stronghold.

Instead of enacting reforms, the PUK was effectively taken over by Talabani's wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, who continued with the status quo. This only reinforced the growing perception that the Talabanis saw the PUK as a piece of family property more than anything else. Jalal Talabani's son Qubad was made representative of the PUK in the United States before becoming KRG representative in Washington in 2006. When Qubad Talabani returned to Kurdistan in 2012, he was appointed to the dubious-sounding position of "Minister for Coordination and Follow-up," fuelling public bitterness at PUK nepotism.  

Public discontent came to the surface in Sulaymaniyah after the Arab Spring, with crowds turning out to demand an end to repression and corruption. Police responded by killing 10 protesters, injuring 500. Despite that Sulamaniyah was a PUK stronghold the first time KDP's guards opened fire, it had a negative impact on the PUK.

The PUK's crisis continued in the absence of Jalal Talabani, who has remained hospitalized in Germany since December 2012. It was in absence of Talabani that the PUK politburo agreed to extend Barzani's term two years, despite that there was absolutely no legal basis for doing so.

In the end, Gorran rode the wave of anti-PUK sentiment to the second position in the polls, to the surprise of few. The party shook the Kurdish political scene during its first four years in office, using its strong media presence to break silence on the public budget, corruption, lack of transparency over oil revenue, and human rights abuses. Gorran's demand to use Kurdistan's oil revenue to fund social programs for the poor appealed to a populace that had seen PUK and KDP party cronies get rich virtually overnight. Its candidates, many of them young and well-educated, reflected a more participatory understanding of politics than that shown by the PUK and KDP, which tend to use political appointments as an instrument of patronage.

The image of the KDP and the Barzani tribe has also suffered from rampant corruption, repression, and nepotism. However, a number of conditions allowed the party to avoid the crisis that befell the PUK. The KDP's unchallenged hegemony in Erbil and Duhok means its 500,000 members have few other choices. It easily controls its members using threats and inducements, and KDP-held areas are generally more repressive and less free than PUK ones. In the PUK's (former) zone, people have been voting without fearing losing their jobs or compromising their interests but in the KDP zone it was different. Unlike the PUK, the KDP's internal decision-making process is rigid and centralized, allowing fewer opportunities for dissidents to air grievances. Finally, the Barzani tribe's domination of business and oil revenue allows the KDP to fund a wider network of services and patronage, putting the PUK at a disadvantage.

Kurdistan faces an uncertain course ahead. None of the parties came out of the elections strong enough to form a cabinet alone, making a coalition inevitable. The main opposition's demands will be unifying the Peshmerga and security forces, institutionalizing the government, ensuring the independence of the judiciary, creating a parliamentary political system, and tackling corruption. As the KDP is a pragmatic party favoring stable governance, it will likely work out some form of compromise on these points with either Gorran or the PUK. 

Both the Gorran and PUK will be eager to govern with the KDP, but this would present dangers for both parties. Gorran risks squandering its oppositional image by partnering with the corrupt and repressive KDP. The PUK's slide into irrelevance would only continue if it returned to the status quo ante. 

The PUK's internal crisis will exacerbate. After all, the PUK now needs to replace two positions of Talabani: one from Baghdad the other from Kurdistan. So far, none of PUK's leaders can challenge the post-Talabani era. All eyes are on Barham Salih, the former KRG prime minister, to stabilize the party, but it is hard to believe that the reformist Salih can be accepted by the group that has control over almost all of PUK's institutions, especially finance and security institutions.

The new dynamics will have significant implications for Baghdad as well as the broader region. The PUK has had agreements with Iraqi Shiiite parties, which will likely be impacted by the decline of the PUK. The Kurdish share in Iraq's government will also change as Gorran will be a strong party in Iraq's upcoming elections. As Gorran is a new party it has not yet allied with any Iraqi parties. As Shiites and Sunnis may have different coalitions in the upcoming elections, Kurds may divide as well. Additionally, Gorran has not aligned with any countries in the region.

Its policy has been to remain neutral, since there still is not a Kurdish state, Kurds can be contained in regional conflicts. So for Gorran, Kurds should not ally to either Turkey or Iran, instead they support keeping balance between these two main regional players.

All in all, the September 21 parliamentary election overturned the political order in Iraqi Kurdistan. The voters rewarded the Gorran Movement and punished the PUK in the hope that Gorran will not compromise for the KDP and will put an end to its hegemony and totalitarian intentions. People clearly expressed their anger on ballots; it is important to make them sure that their votes are heard on the tables of negotiation between the political parties in forming the new cabinet. If not, people are likely to think of other ways to push for change as has been recently seen throughout the region.

Kamal Chomani @kamalchomani is a Kurdish journalist covering Kurdish politics in Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran for local and international outlets. He previously served on the editorial staff of the leading Kurdish political Lvin Magazine and was a Reporters Without Borders correspondent in the Kurdistan Region.


The Middle East Channel

U.S. and Iran launch new round of nuclear negotiations

The United States and Iran held their highest-level talks in 36 years at the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly Thursday, with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meeting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The meeting, which included the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany, aimed at kicking off a new round of talks over Iran's disputed nuclear program. Officials left the meeting cautiously optimistic welcoming a "significant shift" in Iran's attitude. Kerry said he was struck by the "very different tone" presented by Zarif but said there is more work to do. Additionally, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said the meeting was a "good start." Zarif, who insisted Iran's nuclear program was "nothing but peaceful," said the world powers agreed to fast-track negotiations within a year. They plan to reconvene for substantive talks on Iran's nuclear program on October 15 in Geneva. Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is meeting for the first time since Iran's new President Hassan Rouhani has come into office over the stalled inquiry into Iran's nuclear program. Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Reza Najafi, said they will "review existing issues" and discuss methods of cooperation, but cautioned not to expect a one-day meeting to solve all of the problems.


The permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council have reached an agreement on a draft resolution that would require Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons arsenal. According to officials, there would be no automatic penalties for noncompliance, however the resolution would include a stipulation that if Syria fails to abide by its terms, measures could be taken under the Chapter VII mandate, including sanctions or the use of force. However, this would require an additional Security Council resolution that Russia could veto. The draft resolution defines chemical weapons as a "threat to international peace and security." Additionally, it calls for the Syrian government to begin a political transition. The full 15 member Security Council could vote on the draft as early as Friday, once the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has approved a U.S. and Russian proposal for securing and destroying Syria's chemical arms. According to the draft, the OPCW would start investigating Syria's arsenal by Tuesday, including sites not declared by the government. The United Nations has said that a team of chemical weapons inspectors is set to finish by Monday its investigation in Syria into seven cases of suspected chemical or biological weapons use. Meanwhile, head of the opposition Syrian Supreme Military Council, General Salim Idriss, is expected to meet with fighters from 13 Islamist rebel groups that on Tuesday released a statement rejecting the authority of the opposition Syrian National Coalition.


  • Turkey has selected a U.S.-sanctioned Chinese firm to build its first long-range air defense and anti-missile system despite concerns about its capability with NATO early-warning systems.
  • Thousands of Egyptians are taking to the streets Friday for anti-government protests just days after a Cairo court banned all Muslim Brotherhood activities.
  • Tunisian rapper Ahmed Ben Ahmed, or Klay BBJ, has been sentenced to six months in prison losing an appeal after being found guilty, along with rapper Weld El 15, for insulting the police.

Arguments and Analysis

'Syrian Opposition Groups Stop Pretending' (Rania Abouzeid, The New Yorker Blog)

"The pretense that the so-called Syrian opposition-in-exile speaks for those inside the country, never firm to begin with, was further exposed late on Tuesday, in a two-minute video statement called ‘Communiqué No. 1,' which was issued by eleven armed rebel groups that are influential in northern Syria. Their message was simple: the Western-backed hotel revolutionaries jetting from capital to capital, claiming leadership in the political National Coalition and an interim government-to-be, don't speak for them -- and they won't listen to them. The new coalition, which has yet to announce its name, also said it wants Islamic Sharia law to be the basis of any future government, and that the various opposition parties should unite within ‘an Islamic framework.'

There has long been a disconnect between those fighting and bleeding inside Syria and the political and diplomatic machinations of those in exile. What is new here is that at least three of the eleven groups -- Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam, and Suqour al-Sham -- are aligned with the military wing of the National Coalition, the Supreme Military Council, which is supported by the West and is what passes for the leadership of the loose franchise outfit known as the Free Syrian Army (F.S.A.). Now they have publicly thrown in their lot with Jabhat al-Nusra, which also signed on to the statement and is connected to Al Qaeda.

This public alliance of affiliates of the F.S.A. and of Al Qaeda, however, is more of a shift on paper than a marked change in how things work on the ground. There has long been operational coordination on a local level -- for a particular battle or in a certain geographic area. All that has really happened at this stage is that a fig leaf has dropped."

'Breaking Point: The Crisis of Syrian Refugees in Lebanon' (Omar Dahi, MERIP)

"One of the many plot lines lost in the summertime discussions of a US strike on Syria is the pace of refugee movement out of the country. As it stands, the refugee crisis is overwhelming and likely to stay that way. Another external military intervention would further accelerate the mass flight and exacerbate what is already a humanitarian emergency.

The Syrian refugee crisis became too large too quickly for any real planning of ameliorative measures to take place. At the end of September 2012, one year ago, there were less than 240,000 registered refugees in total. Today, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees data, the number is 2 million. And that is not to speak of the millions more internally displaced persons, or IDPs, who have fled their homes but remained inside Syrian borders. Most refugees express a desire to go home, but the statistics are not on the side of return. The UNHCR defines ‘protracted refugee situations' as those in which refugees have lived in exile for five years or more with no serious prospect of finding a ‘durable solution,' meaning repatriation, integration into the host country or resettlement in a third country. By this definition, two thirds of all globally registered refugees -- over 7 million people -- are in ‘protracted' limbo. Many Syrians are likely to join them."

'Disbanded Brothers' (Pomegranate Blog - The Economist)

"Despite the Brotherhood's softened tone, shared fears of counterrevolution have not redounded to its benefit. Mr Morsi's year in office exposed a penchant for monopolising power that disturbed fellow Islamists as well as secular Egyptians. Two of the country's main Salafist parties, who represent puritan religious trends but lack the Brothers' cult-like structure, now openly advise the Brothers to apologise for past mistakes, and to call off a campaign of civil disobedience that does more to annoy the public than to attract sympathy. Egypt's most prominent pro-Islamist columnist, Fahmy Huwaydi, counselled that the Brotherhood should follow the example of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic who after years of obstinacy ended the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war with the declaration that to drink a cup of poison was better than to prolong the suffering.

The fact is that, in another relapse to pre-2011 revolution ways, most Egyptians appear again to have disengaged from politics. This is largely due to exhaustion, but also to hopes that perhaps the current government, with its control of the state far more secure than Mr Morsi's, may be able to address pressing problems. These are many and deeper than ever, but the government, bolstered by a massive injection of funds from wealthy Gulf supporters such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, has made some promising starts, including an initial $3.5 billion stimulus package of infrastructure spending. A recent directive from the prime minister, asking television stations to change the tagline on national news reports from 'war against terror' to 'the road to democracy', suggests that Egypt's leaders are keen to move on."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber