New Kurdish Prime Minister and the political fallout - By Shwan Zulal

Recent election in Kurdistan Region has been hailed as a big success, not only because the process was reasonably free and fair, but the emergence of a new powerful movement which simply call themselves, Change.  The movement is led by former Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) deputy leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa and among its ranks are former PUK loyalists.

The failure of the current Kurdish government to provide basic services and tackle corruption at all levels resulted in large scale voter defection from the traditional parties. Change movement managed to win a substantial share of the votes but fall short of a majority to form the new government, but the incumbent parties managed to secure more than 50 per cent of the votes, which will enable them to form the new cabinet.

Life has been improving under the previous administration and Kurdistan Region and has been a world apart from the rest of Iraq, security has improved to an extent and the standard of living has risen, but the Kurdish public has lost patience with the previous administration and demands a much faster than anticipated transition to accountable and transparent governance.

All these factors has led to the emergence of strong opposition in the form of Change and other smaller political parties from the left and right, which have so far resisted calls by Kurdistani List (formed by PUK and Kurdistan Democratic Party alliance) to join the government and chosen to stay in opposition, nevertheless; the situation is fluid and position can change

Strong parliamentary opposition has not been experienced before in Kurdistan without leading to violance and the main two political parties are nervous about the changes as they have had free reign in the last two decades and got away with incompetency and economic mismanagement without any serious opposition. In the past the opposition parties have joined a unity government and therefore, proved difficult to hold the government into account.

Since the narrow win by Kurdistani List which was only possible because PUK and KDP entered into a collision and been doing so for the last four years, they are nervous about their popularity and future of their parties. In the face of public backlash and division within PUK and KDP ranks, Kurdistani List has been grooming the next Kurdish prime minister which is the Iraqi deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, who has resigned his post in Baghdad last week.

Salih is a popular figure and a pragmatist, Western reporters adore him as he is known to provide access and have detailed conversations in English as well as twitting and dishing out gossip about the elite in Iraq and Washington DC. He is also popular amongst the educated classes in Sulaymaniyah where most of PUK supporters have switched sides to Change movement. 

Salih is known as a reformer therefore not popular within PUK old guards and he is seen as an outsider, because he was educated in UK and spent time in Washington DC. However it is clear that Kurdistani List is willing to risk upsetting party grandees who have spent most of their lives in the mountains fighting for the Kurdish cause, to try to win public support once again.

Salih's appointment as the new Kurdish Prime Minister is seen by many as President Masu'd Barzani's way to sideline his nephew the current prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani. Nechirvan's supporters believe he is president Barzani's natural successor, however; Mas'ud Barzani has his own agenda and wants to promote his son Masrur in preparation for succession and give him more responsibilities.

Nechirvan has managed to build himself a power base in Arbil while he was the PM for the last 4 years during which he managed create a network of influential businessmen and powerful allies. But sending him to Baghdad to fill Salih's position would be very difficult for him as this would take him out of his comfort zone. Political exile for Nechirvan orchestrated by his uncle Mas'ud Barzani would bring about his demise. Nevertheless Nechirvan may not ride off into the sunset just yet and may make matters complicated which would make life difficult for Mas'ud Barzani, KDP and Kurdistani List.

Salih has already started to consult the other parties to seek consensus as he is known to be very skilful in making political deals. Since meeting with opposition party leaders, it is becoming more apparent that opposition parties would not be taking part in the new government which makes his task even more challenging. On the other hand an effective opposition would make the government more accountable and it will benefit the region long term, therefore expectation is high and time will tell whether Salih is up to the challenge. 

The current change in Kurdistan political landscape which has been taking place is part of a process of change in Iraqi politics. New challengers have been emerging on the scene and they are fundamentally changing long established loyalties in Iraqi politics which is an indication that the issues have changed therefore, the symbols must change too.


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September 1, 2009
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