Third Force in Kurdish Politics Mooted

Turmoil within PUK ranks may result in launch of new reform-minded coalition headed by leading dissident.

Third Force in Kurdish Politics Mooted

Turmoil within PUK ranks may result in launch of new reform-minded coalition headed by leading dissident.

A bitter feud in Iraqi president Jalal Talabani’s party is expected to lead to the formation of an independent coalition, shaking up the Kurdish political establishment.

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, has been in turmoil over the past few months as senior party members calling for reform have resigned or threatened to leave the party.

One of the most prominent leaders pushing for change, PUK co-founder Nawshirwan Mustafa, has decided to create an independent coalition to contest the upcoming parliamentary elections, Adnan Osman, editor-in-chief of the Rozhnama newspaper, which is owned by Mustafa, told IWPR.

A new coalition could challenge the Iraqi Kurdish political establishment, which the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, have dominated since 1975. Public confidence in the government, which is run by both parties, has waned in recent years over issues such as poor services, party-based nepotism and corruption – a problem acknowledged even by senior officials.

Mustafa, a popular leader in the northeastern city of Sulaimaniyah, and owner of the powerful Wisha media company, has been a voice of dissent in the PUK for years. He and other reform-minded party members have called for greater financial transparency in the party, more accountability and changes to the leadership, which Talabani currently heads.

Reformers have also argued that the party and government have been unresponsive to citizens’ needs.

“The PUK cannot serve the public,” said Mustafa Sayid Qadir, a PUK leader who stepped down last month. “If it could, why would [I] have resigned?”

Osman said Mustafa wants to create a coalition that will push for a more independent civil service and trade unions – which have been intricately tied to the PUK and KDP since Iraqi Kurdistan gained a measure of autonomy from Baghdad in 1992.

Mustafa has yet to formally announce that he will run a coalition to contest Iraqi Kurdistan parliamentary elections, which were scheduled for May 19 but are expected to be delayed. Election rules prohibit campaigning until a poll date is set.

The years-long feud between the party establishment, which is loyal to Talabani, and reformists came to a head in February, when four senior leaders resigned. A dozen more influential members have threatened to step down over internal disputes.

Mustafa stepped down as deputy secretary-general following an internal power struggle in 2006 and founded Wisha.

Mustafa told IWPR in November that he was not interested in creating an opposition party, saying he would use his media to hold the authorities to account.

But as PUK’s internal disputes have grown, there has been growing speculation that Mustafa would challenge the party in the upcoming elections. He has called on Talabani, the PUK’s secretary-general, to resign and accused him of adopting a “one-man” party leadership.

"The elections are the only legitimate means through which [Mustafa] wants to bring about a new political force," said Osman. “This is a concerted effort that simply stems from the sheer political need for change."

Fareed Asasard, a PUK leader and head of the Kurdistan Centre for Strategic Studies, said an independent list could weaken the PUK.

“The PUK might get fewer votes,” he said. “This will affect its coalition with [the KDP] and the strategic agreement between the two.

"The votes that Nawshirwan's list will obtain in effect is going to be deducted from those of the PUK, and ultimately from the PUK-KDP coalition.”

Some Kurdish observers believe that Talabani wants to remain a political force after his term as president of Iraq ends next year. Talabani loyalists have said the two-term president, who is 75, will give up politics but remain party leader.

"Talabani could easily continue as the party leader, but, in my opinion, he will be left with a much smaller PUK," said Shaho Saed, a writer and lecturer at Sulaimaniyah University.

"Talabani doesn’t believe in institutions; he believes in figureheads. To him, PUK equals Talabani.”

With the PUK part of the ruling coalition in Iraqi Kurdistan, the turmoil within the party has unsettled the regional government.

Osman Haji Mahmud, the interior minister and a senior PUK leader, resigned from both posts last month. PUK deputy secretary-general Kosrat Rasul, who serves as vice-president, offered his resignation from the party in February but later decided to stay put after reaching an agreement with Talabani.

The PUK has attempted to appease detractors by reshuffling many of its top officials and pledging greater transparency. But these efforts have done little to win over their critics.

The four senior officials who resigned in February have not publicly backed Mustafa, and Qadir said they are waiting to see the shape of his coalition before announcing their support.

PUK leaders loyal to Talabani say they regret the resignations from the party but feel confident it will overcome these setbacks.

“We aren’t happy that they quit because we must collectively share the burden and work together to build the party,” said Emad Ahmed, a senior PUK leader and acting Iraqi Kurdistan deputy prime minster.

The PUK “has always had problems”, he continued. “But it has always found solutions, so we would like to responsibly deal with the difficulties and solve them in the best way possible”.

PUK and KDP loyalists have long warned that a third party threatens Kurdish unity, which they argue is necessary to lobby for Kurds in Baghdad and internationally.

Kurdish leaders have sparred with the Shia-led central government over issues such as the oil-rich disputed province of Kirkuk. Baghdad has delayed a referendum which Kurdish leaders hope will bring Kirkuk under Iraqi Kurdistan authority.

A breakaway PUK faction would weaken the PUK-KDP alliance and “the Kurdish position in Baghdad”, warned Rebwar Karim Mahmoud, a political science professor at the University of Sulaimaniyah.

“The Kurds are under threat from neighbouring countries,” said Sa'di Ahmed Pira, a Talabani loyalist and senior PUK representative. “If the Kurds are not united, they will not be able to handle the threats.”

Roman Zagros is an IWPR Iraq editor based in Sulaimaniyah. Azeez Mahmood is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah.
Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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