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The Kurds contest to Iraq’s presidential palace

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 13.46.56The current political convention of power in Iraq is that power is divided among three major components — Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. The Presidential candidate will be from its Kurdish component — although this is not a constitutionally defined right or privilege.

The candidate, as per agreement within Kurdish political parties will be selected from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) will get Deputy Prime Minister position, and Gorran movement has got second deputy of parliament speaker . Despite the race to Baghdad, however, the Kurds still insist on self-determination right and they doesn’t seem to give up independence claim.

The PUK has submitted the names of two people because the politburo could not reach an agreement on one candidate. A senior leader of PUK, Najmiddin Karim has submitted his application for the post of Presidency without the consent of PUK politburo, which has further deepened the internal disputes.

Jalal Talabani, one of the founding members of PUK and the current secretary-general, returned from Germany after an 18-month medical exile , and is perceived to be key in resolving internal disputes within PUK politburo. The dispute among PUK politburos over the presidential candidate is a result of PUK’s growing fragmentations. PUK has had the same internal conflicts during Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) 8th cabinet, which caused a delay in KRG’s cabinet formation and submitted its candidates for KRG positions at the last-minute.

The Presidential role in Iraq has its own set of limitations on executive power, but despite this the position plays a significant role in several areas. Namely, the President can guarantee to safeguard the constitution, as defined in Article 63 of the Iraqi constitution . An important progressive step for the President of Iraq to pursue is the establishment of a federal council which will guarantee accountability and balance, as outlined in Article 62. The president can also resolve issues pertaining to a referendum in disputed areas — passing of hydrocarbon draft law,  which all await political agreement since 2007.

  • Decentralisation of power

The changing sociopolitical dynamics of Iraq necessitate the acknowledgement of a “new reality” that the current political establishment are faced with, and this requires a leader that can transform Iraq from a centralised power to a powering-sharing governing system that can alleviate grievances of different fractions of Iraq’s population, especially fiscal decentralization, which is a key to maintain stability and growth.

Kurdish Presidential candidates must be able to act responsibly, especially since their endorsement of a power-sharing governing system could potentially taint their reputation within Kurdistan Region due to public calls of Independence.

  • Resolving Erbil-Baghdad disputes

The Iraqi government has withheld Kurdistan Region’s share of its annual budget, and this has led to delayed salaries for governmental employees, increasing public frustration with Baghdad since more than a fifth of employees in Kurdistan Region are civil servants, and this amounts to 840 billion dinars per month.

It is imperative that a presidential candidate can resolve the internal and external issues between Erbil-Baghdad in order to sustain support, as well as credibility.

  • Forming good relations with regional and international powers

An ideal candidate must be able to diplomatically sustain an ongoing relationship with regional and international powers to improve Iraq’s diplomatic ties. In 2011, Iraq signed a strategic agreement, which sets out that U.S. is responsible to protect Iraq’s unity, as well as sovereignty. U.S. is one of Iraq’s largest weapon supplier and U.S. has attempted to rebuild Iraq’s political system after the 2003 invasion. It is imperative that the next President of Iraq can sustain a healthy relationship with U.S. and is able to appreciate U.S. concerns in Iraq.

Iraq’s neighbouring Iran is influential within Iraq, and in some instances internal politics are interpreted to mirror that of Iranian policies. Iran has formed strong relations with Shiite political parties, and shares the same religious values with them. Furthermore, Iran’s political presence can be seen in Kurdistan Region, especially economically since KRG shares three international port of entries with them. The future President of Iraq is tasked with the responsibility of balancing a relationship with both U.S. and the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Turkey is one of the regional powers of Middle East that has hegemony over internal politics in Iraq. Turkey also shares both borders and economic interests with Iraq. It also has significant influence over Sunnis and Turkmen in Iraq — siding with Sunnis in the Sunni-Shiite conflicts. Turkey currently provides permanent residency to the former Vice President of Iraq, Tariq al-Hashemi, who was sentenced to death in absentia by the Iraqi high court. The President also has the responsibility of easing Iraq’s relationship with Turkey, and resuming a positive relationship.

  • Representative of Iraq’s diverse population

Iraq’s diverse population ethnically and in terms of religious adherence plays an important role politically. The survival of a presidential candidate is contingent upon whether he or she can communicate with the three major components — Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds.

  • Influential candidate

A presidential candidate must be able to have sufficient support from his political party, and political figures in order to be able to efficiently make decisions that pertain to Iraq. Jalal Talabani, the current President of Iraq was largely successful because his decisions were not second-questioned, and he was respected by his politburo as well as President Masoud Barzani of Kurdistan region.

When it came to making decisive choices, Talabani did not need to request the permission or approval of his politburo nor Kurdistan Region’s officials because he was perceived to be an adequate representative, suited for his position. However, this does not mean all decisions were made independently without consulting Kurdish officials or his politburo. Rather, it means he was accepted as a figurehead, and his decisions were largely respected because they were premised on good faith.

It is equally important for the next President of Iraq to be able to represent all major components while maintaining autonomy and decision-making powers.

  • The three candidates and their strength and weaknesses

For the first time in Iraq’s history more than one hundred people have sought to run for the post of Presidency, including two women, one of them from the State of Coalition party. The three potential Kurdish candidates, who contest to arrive at the Presidential palace are all PUK members.

Barham Salih, 53 years old, second deputy of secretary-general of PUK is the former prime minister of Kurdistan Regional Government, and former deputy prime minister of the federal government of Iraq. He joined PUK in 1976 where he represented PUK from London, and was in charge of foreign relations .

Barham Salih is perceived to be the most qualified and suitable for the Presidential position due to his experience in Baghdad and Kurdistan. Given his diverse background within governmental institutions, he is likely to succeed as a leader of Iraq and form better relations with regional as well as international powers. In the past he was the Minister of Planning in Baghdad, and later on became the Deputy Prime Minister, which has enabled him to understand Iraq’s executive power more efficiently.

As the former prime minister of Kurdistan (2009-2011), he has formed numerous ties with major political parties throughout Kurdistan and Iraq. In addition to this, his experience in United States of America as PUK’s representative (1999-2001) has increased his popularity amongst politicians internationally.

However, one of Barham’s strongest weaknesses derives from his relationship with some of PUK’s politburo members, particularly the first lady of Iraq, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed. This is balanced by the existence of his own faction within PUK politburo and growing popularity among younger PUK members.

Fuad Masum, 76 years old, one of the founding members of PUK is the former head of Kurdistani Alliance Fraction in Iraqi Parliament, and the first prime minister of Kurdistan Regional Government in 1992 . Fuad Masum has been stationed in Baghdad since 2003 as a Kurdish Iraqi parliamentary member and leading Kurdish representatives in Baghdad.

He is perceived to be balanced in dealing with opponents among Shiites and Sunnis. Although he clearly demonstrates an understanding of the conflicts between the political parties in Iraq, including Kurdish parties, his weakness is enshrined at home, within his own political party. Despite being one of the founding members of PUK, he is not a popular senior leader amongst PUK members, and this was evident from the 2010 national elections where he collected a significantly low number of votes.

One of the problems associated with Masum is that his political career has been domestically orientated, and he has limited international experience. This could potentially hinder the formation of relations with regional and international powers due to his lack of experience.

Unlike Dr. Barham Salih, he does not have his own faction within PUK Politburo, but has the advantage of being a close friend to President Jalal Talabani. His weakness is problematic because he will not be able to make a decisive decision without PUK’s politburo approval, and this could potentially weaken his leadership.

Najmiddin Karim, 65 years old, is a PUK politburo member and the governor of oil-rich Kirkuk for a second term , where he received 150,000 votes. He is the former President of Kurdistan National Congress (KNC) — Kurdish nationalist movement based abroad. His strength is with his relations with United States of America as KNC’s president and founder of Washington Kurdish Institute. At home, he is perceived to be Talabani’s right hand, and is loyal to the Talabani family.

Najmiddin’s relationship with Arabs and Turkmen in Kirkuk give him renowned credibility that he is accepted among Iraq’s diverse population, or at least a significant percentage of Iraq’s diverse population. However, his relationship with Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is severed. He does not have previous experience within KRG’s institutions or the nature of KRG’s relations with Baghdad because he has spent most of his life abroad where he focused on US-Kurd relations as a diaspora Kurd. Moreover, Najmiddin is not PUK’s ideal candidate yet. He can’t arrive to the Presidential Palace without prior approval of major Kurdish political parties, including his own, PUK.

It is noteworthy to point out that PUK did not nominate Najmiddin for the post of presidency, and he nominated himself without the party’s consent.

This article is co-authored by Sarkawt Shamsulddin, Ruwayda Mustafah Rabar and Kamal Chomani.



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