The new parliament elections in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, held on Sunday 30 September, could further threaten Iraq's already precarious stability. The vote comes five years after the last parliamentary elections and one year after the controversial Kurdish independence referendum, which on 25 September 2017 sparked a crisis in the relationship between Erbil and Baghdad, creating a fracture between the two main Kurdish parties that have been sharing power since 1991: the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Last year's failed referendum, rejected by Baghdad, led to the resignation of the region's president and KDP leader, Massoud Barzani, in order to ward off the risk of a civil war. Those same events seem to be the reason behind the low turnout at these parliamentary elections, in which only 57% of those eligible to vote went to the polls. The figure is in striking contrast with last year's referendum attendance, which exceeded 72%.
The Battle Between KDP and PUK
Preliminary data suggest that KDP, the party of former president Barzani, is ahead with 42 seats, against the 24 obtained by PUK, who has already accused its rivals of electoral fraud, fueling hostility between the two parties. A predictable victory of the KDP would also increase the frictions between the dominant party and the political groups born in recent years, especially Gorran – the main opposition in the old parliament, with 24 seats – and New Generation, formed in 2018, who won 4 seats in Baghdad's central parliament at the general elections in May. There are 111 seats in the Kurdistan Region parliament, 11 of which are reserved for ethnic and religious minorities and shared among Christians (5), Turkmen (5), and Armenians (1).
The elections have been followed with great interest by Iraq's federal government and from outside the country. The rivalries emerged following last year's referendum have turned more bitter and have influenced Iraq's national politics. Since May, the country has been trying to form a government and appoint a president, which according to the constitution must be a representative of the Kurdish minority. For the first time since 2005 – when Iraq started running elections – the Kurds have nominated candidates in contrast with the Iraqi presidency. Until now, the presidency was reserved to a member of the PUK party, while DKP had always obtained the presidency of Kurdistan.
This year, however, the party led by the Barzani family insisted on presenting its own candidate, Fuad Hussein, Berzani's former head of staff, who ran for president against other six candidates: Barham Saleh, from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; former MP Sarwa Abdel Wahid; Iraqi ambassador to the Vatican City, Omar al Barzanij; the MP of the Gorran movement, Sardar Abdullah; Abdul Ratif Rashid, representative of the PUK party; Salim Hamza, leader of the Kurdish Islamic Union. The past October 2, with 219 votes in favor, the Iraqi parliament elected Barham Sale, who prevailed on his opponent Fuad Hussein. The new president also nominated the pro-Iranian Shiite Adel Abdul Mahdi as prime minister, who will have the task of forming Iraq’s future government, confirming the increasing influence of Teheran over Baghdad.
The battle among the Kurdish factions started before the advent of the Islamic State and the economic crisis, caused by the drop in oil prices. A number of analysts think that the political groups that dominate the autonomous region have been postponing confrontation since 2014, limiting themselves to accusing the government of Baghdad of abandoning Erbil in the fight against the Islamic State, leaving Kurdistan to suffer the refugee crisis and the drop of oil prices.
The campaign for the parliamentary elections and the battle for the Iraqi presidency accelerated the competition to win Erbil's future government. While the PUK party maintained better relationships with Baghdad, as a means to increase profits deriving from oil exports – effectively under the federal government's control – the DKP focused on obtaining greater independence from the central government, to manage better its oil profits and security.
The recent political battles have also highlighted an increase in the formation of political groups, which until now were overshadowed by the hegemony of the two rival clans. From these parliamentary elections, Gorran – also known as the Movement for Change party – hopes to obtain more than the 24 seats it won back in 2013. Speaking to the media, the leader of the party said that this time elections have proven to be more open compared to previous elections, especially due to popular discontent with the performance of the two allies/rivals, DKP and PUK, who have led Erbil's government for the past five years. Since 2014, the autonomous region has had to endure the freeze of public salaries – approximately 12% of the population are civil servants – due to the friction with Baghdad on oil profits, which worsened with the independence referendum. At the same time, the region had to borrow 4 billion dollars to avoid economic collapse. Debts accumulated up to September 2017, total approximately 12 billion dollars.
The Role of Saudi Arabia
Eribil's weak position has encouraged Saudi Arabia, the main player in the region, to strengthen its role in Kurdistan and contrast Teheran's interference in the Iraqi federal government. Following the defeat of the outgoing premier, Haider al Abadi, in the general federal elections last May, Riad fears a rise of the pro-Iranian Shiite parties in the future government, in particular the Fatah party, expression of the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU): Shiite militias trained and supported by Iran.
Fatah was the second most voted party at the parliamentary elections, after al Sairoon, the formation led by the controversial religious-political leader Moqtada al Sadr, who despite his relationship with Riad, represents an unknown factor for Saudi Arabia. The extent of Riad's influence in the autonomous region became evident the past July, when Erbil hosted an important economic forum attended by a great number of entrepreneurs, chosen by the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, and led by the president of the chamber of commerce of Riad, Sami bin Abdullah al Obeidi. The Saudi government has also strengthened its airport connections with the Kurdish region and on October 1 it inaugurated the Erbil-Gedda route, operated by Saudi Airlines.