The Kurdish referendum in September 2017 not only lost plenty of gains earned since 2003, but also brought about a deep political dichotomy between and inside the prominent political parties in the region. The post-referendum Kurdish politics in the Green Zone (the PUK dominated zone) shifted from an alliance to antagonism, particularly between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Movement for Change (Gorran). This article will discuss the political rivalry between the two parties in the Green Zone since the Kurdish referendum period, as well as intra-disputes amongst the various factions of PUK and its implications upon their joint agreement. The article will also identify possible scenarios for PUK– Gorran relations. The wider political development in the Green Zone will be addressed as well. This article concludes that the activation of the PUK-Gorran political agreement with the expansion of the accord to include other parties in the area is the optimal scenario.
The province of Sulaymaniyah has witnessed, during the past years, an undesirable political conflict due to differences, which negatively impact the locality and the local government. The actual start of the political rivalry in Sulaymaniyah, which is the electoral homeland of the PUK with whom Gorran was formerly affiliated with, was when a number of members of the Political Bureau of the PUK requested radical reforms within the party, government, as well as demanded improvements to basic services to citizens. At the end of 2005, Nawshirwan Mustafa resigned as the deputy secretary of the PUK, and founded a political movement in 2009. On 25 April 2009, Nawshirwan Mustafa announced his separate and independent election list that would compete in the upcoming KRG elections.
Some members of the Political Bureau of the PUK voted in favour of it, along with a large number of citizens who were dissatisfied with the performance of the party government since 1992. They managed to obtain 25 out of 111 seats in the regional parliament. Since then, the movement has entered into a fierce rivalry with the PUK by obtaining the largest number of seats and political clout, especially as Gorran split from the PUK and has a strong presence within the areas under the control of the PUK. The competition between Gorran and the PUK has reached highest levels, and now Gorran expects the downfall of the PUK so that it can take over Sulaymaniyah.
The Movement for Change launched a campaign to re-activate its relations with the Kurdish parties and forces close to their orientations and bring about a convergence of attitudes towards the contemporary situation and political and economic crises that have been afflicting the region and ways to remedy their negative repercussions on its citizens. In the backdrop of disputes that has broken out since 2014 on problems related to salaries, living conditions, and partisan conflicts and contradictory political positions on a range of issues in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), the PUK and Gorran have signed a joint agreement. The 17 May 2017 agreement is regarded to be a flashpoint in intra-Kurdish politics in KRI. The political agreement consists of 25 articles that aimed at uniting the Kurdish class in order to face regional crises. The agreement between Gorran and the PUK was not too different from the ones signed between the latter and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in 2007. While the first is a political agreement, the second is an agreement on governance and the form of administration in the Green Zone and KRI. A joint political agreement clearly indicates their support for changing the political system in the Kurdistan region from a presidential to a parliamentary system. However, this agreement has never been implemented. The political and military setbacks due to the results of the independence referendum in the disputed territories and intra political quarrels in the PUK brought about a new phase of political ties between both sides.
PUK – Gorran Bilateral Relation
In the beginning of 2007, the semi-autonomous KRI was governed in accordance to a strategic agreement between KDP and PUK. The agreement provided the KDP-PUK bloc with a strong majority in the regional parliament, and even included an almost equal distribution of bureaucratic and military posts between KDP and PUK cadres. The first sign of political rivalry was the emergence of Gorran as a splinter group from the PUK in KRI – Sulaymaniyah. After the US-led invasion of Iraq, a number of members of the Political Bureau of the PUK demanded far-reaching changes within the party and government. Mustafa, the then deputy secretary-general of the PUK, used to be number-two-figure to Jalal Talabani in the party. He resigned from his posts within the PUK and devoted his efforts to bringing about a change in the political system of KRI by creating an effective political opposition in July 2009. Gorran claimed that its establishment was a response to a deadlocked parliament that was prisoner to the KDP-PUK agreement that predetermines every aspect of political life in the region. The movement soon attracted a considerable percentage of PUK cadres and a much smaller number from KDP and other regional parties. Mustafa accused his former allies of ruling Kurdistan autocratically, and of corruption among both parties and KRG officials. The defection of many of its supporters to Gorran was a blow to the PUK in its stronghold. Gorran’s success has changed the way politics work in the KRI.
It should be pointed out that the Islamic trend in the region had also formed a political opposition within the Kurdistan assembly, consisting of the Islamic Union and the Islamic Group. If we look closely at the results of 2009 elections of the National Assembly of the Region, it can be seen that the big difference was the rise of organized and coherent political opposition, both of which were not involved in politics. Gorran did not participate in the government at that time due to the formation of the government being in line with the previous standards, according to the movement.
By coming in second to the KDP in the 2013 elections, Iraqi Kurdish politics were in turmoil. The eighth cabinet of the KRI was initially formed by a KDP – Gorran coalition, notwithstanding the existing 2005 KDP-PUK agreement. The PUK, which was once an equal political partner of the KDP, found itself marginalized by a new balance of power conditioned by a parliamentary majority consisting of KDP and Gorran members. As coalition negotiations dragged on, Gorran became increasingly frustrated with PUK’s apparent refusal to bow to Gorran’s predominance in Sulaymaniyah, and tensions have been escalating since. The PUK publically complain that they are being excluded and marginalized in a city where they are a majority. Gorran demanded that the PUK-appointed governor of Sulaymaniyah to resign, and the PUK, who retain control over Peshmerga forces in the area, warned that it would “take legal measures against any attempts to cause trouble”. The PUK utilized its strong bureaucratic dominance in Sulaymaniyah to prevent Gorran from assuming local administrative posts, including the governorate of the province that Gorran won in the 2013 elections. In the elections of 2013, Gorran received the second highest number of votes at 24 %, followed by PUK (18%), While the KDP obtained 38 % of the votes. Since coming in second place in the 2013 parliamentary elections in the region, the Movement for Change took the spotlight after it pushed the PUK to third place, and imposed new political agendas on everyone in an attempt to radically change the form and nature of the political system and break the monopoly power represented by Massoud Barzani, the hereditary leader of the KDP.
Despite bypassing many months of the elections of the provincial councils of KRI, the disputes intensified over the post of the governor of Sulaymaniyah, but the differences between the PUK and Gorran in Sulaymaniyah prevented the formation of a local government. The election of the Sulaymaniyah Governorate Councils in April 2014 resulted in a victory for Gorran with 12 seats, followed by the PUK with 11 seats. Gorran’s candidate was eligible for the post of a governor, but the PUK initially did not accept this new reality emerging from the elections. Then, according to the agreement, the legal mandate for a governor is two years. In the first mandate, the post of governor was held by Aso Faridun, who is the head of the PUK bloc in the provincial council, and the head of the provincial council for Gorran, while the second was held by Hafal Abu Bakr, who is the head of the provincial council for the PUK. The PUK did not object to this on the day of signing a political agreement to hand over the position, but due to the problem of Presidency (Barzani’s mandate) of the KRI, Gorran was not able to take over the post of governor of Sulaymaniyah until late 2017. They will retain the post until the upcoming provincial elections.
PUK’s resistance to Gorran and its unilateral control over a large Kurdish population in the disputed territories have undermined the Gorran-KDP alliance. Gorran and the PUK compete for support in Sulaymaniyah; and the addition of the disputed territories to the PUK’s constituency following ISIS’ invasion in 2014 has reduced Gorran’s influence in the area. This led to a rapprochement between Gorran and the PUK in mid-2015, which resulted in a joint parliamentary proposal to change the presidential system in the region to a full parliamentary system, ending the KDP-Gorran coalition. Disputes over the presidency erupted when Gorran teamed up with other political parties including the PUK in opbejection to Barzani extending his presidency beyond its term when it expired for a second time in August 2015. It had already expired in 2013 but was extended for two years. The PUK- Gorran rapprochement created hostility between Gorran and KDP, preventing Gorran’s speaker of Kurdish parliament until his resignation in December 2017, and five of the group’s ministers from entering Erbil in October 2015, ending Gorran’s participation in KRG’s institutions. Gorran has since fallen out with the KDP in a bitter row over the presidency, which has effectively paralyzed the parliament. The PUK benefited from disputes between Gorran and KDP, and restarted negotiations with the KDP to restore the 2005 power-sharing agreement and play a mediation role among them. The PUK’s two-pronged strategy consisted of stabilizing relations with the KDP for the sake of a unified Iraqi Kurdistan, while simultaneously withdrawing its support for the Gorran-led opposition against the KDP, making Gorran increasingly dependent on the PUK. The Gorran-PUK agreement is considered to be a rapprochement between the two parties due to the PUK’s placing itself between its rivals; the KDP and Gorran. In May 2016, Gorran forged a new alliance with the PUK, which is a calculated move towards checking KDP’s hegemony.
Strategic Agreement Between the PUK and Gorran
In the midst of the escalation of the dispute over the presidency of Kurdistan, the situation appears to be a cause of concern within the region, especially as it faces economic and security challenges. The KDP saw priority in the survival of its leader (Massoud Barzani) as the head of the region, or to be named for direct election by the people. The justifications are that the complexities of the situation and threats to the region by terrorists, Barzani must remain in office and even be immune, which places him in a position to surpass the power of a president. The political landscape of KRI was shaken by the agreement between Gorran and the PUK. “It was intended to create a unified Gorran – PUK bloc in the region’s parliament and offer joint lists in the KRI’s next parliamentary elections and the unification of both parties,” said Saadi Ahmed Bireh, a member of the political bureau of the PUK.
The agreement between the parties is not only vital because it ends nearly seven years of hostile relations between both sides, but is likely to present a counterweight to the KDP. It would also mean the effective termination of a so-called “strategic agreement” that turned former foes, KDP and PUK, into allies for years. The agreement signed by the parties was supposed to tilt the balance of power in the region, which has been in a severe internal political crisis for a year due to the presidency, and they have left their agreement open to any other parties who might choose to join the agreement.
The political parties (except the KDP) counted on the adoption of a parliamentary system (constitutionally) to solve the problem of electing a president. They demanded an end to the monopoly of the presidency by Massoud Barzani, and change the system of government, from a presidential system to a parliamentary system. This came about after the Kurdish parliament adopted this draft in its ordinary session held on 23/6/2015. The agreement between the PUK and Gorran would be followed by serious developments, especially when the KDP did not accept the solutions that came in the agreement on the political situation in the region. The agreement seeks to normalize relations and end differences, political tensions and economic crises.
What led the PUK to sign a political agreement with Gorran was the prevention of the Speaker of the Kurdistan Parliament and a number of members of parliamentarians of the Movement for Change by the KDP security forces in October 2015 from entering Erbil to preside over parliamentary sessions. Subsequently five ministers of the movement in the KRG cabinet were expelled, which has disrupted the parliament and provincial government. On 17 May 2017, the PUK and Gorran announced that the agreement will unite both sides in all political positions in addition to being a step towards forming a joint leadership and uniting their blocs in the parliament. The move by the PUK and Gorran would not be easy for KDP, especially since the differences between the two are stark. Gorran stressed that its agreement with the PUK would lead to the end of concentrated power in the hands of one political party (meaning KDP), emphasizing that the agreement is not directed against any party. However, the KDP refused to receive any joint delegation from the PUK and Gorran to discuss the political crisis in the region. A day after the deal was announced; the KDP took a hardline stance against it. The agreement will “widen internal differences”, the party’s political bureau said in a statement. The reason the agreement angered the KDP is the mechanism set by the content of the agreement to resolve political crises in the region, which is the conversion of the presidential system of government to a parliamentary one.
Kurdistan Democratic Party led by Massoud Barzani, said that the joint political agreement between Gorran and PUK will complicate the situation in the region, and not serve the Kurdish people, as it is held between two parties against a third (KDP). The PUK has put itself in a position that will further complicate the situation in the presence of a strategic agreement signed by the two parties (PUK – KDP) ten years ago. In addition to claims of a secret Gorran-PUK agenda, the KDP argued that the new alliance is aimed at preventing Iraqi Kurdistan from declaring independence. The KDP is yet out of options. In order to balance the rising PUK- Gorran bloc, it used the Barzani revolutionary charisma to push the KRI to declare independence in September 2017. A day before the Gorran-PUK agreement was signed, a prominent KDP-linked politician from Iraqi Kurdistan, Sero Qader, publicly vowed that the Kurdistan Parliament would not convene, and Masoud Barzani would rule Iraqi Kurdistan until its declaration of independence, similar to what Charles de Gaulle did in France. Qader declared that Barzani was relying on his revolutionary legitimacy, and the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan cannot be prevented by the Gorran or the PUK. The First Deputy Secretary-General of PUK, Kosrat Rasul, however, stated that “the May 17th agreement between the PUK and Gorran is a fundamental step with the purpose of empowering the national rights of the people of Kurdistan to decide on the right of self-determination and to declare an independent state.”
The PUK – Gorran deal calls for an unconditional re-activation of the Kurdish parliament that has been crippled since KDP has banned its speaker from entering Erbil three years ago. The KDP officials say they will accept an activation of the parliament but only if a non-Gorran figure leads it. The KDP’s head of foreign relations, Hemin Hawrami, on the day that the agreement was signed, also said that Gorran would not be allowed to return to the cabinet until the next cycle of elections. With this merger, Barzanis’ party would no longer have a parliamentary majority either in the parliament of Kurdistan or the Iraqi parliament. Therefore, the KDP described the political agreement between the PUK and Gorran as deepening the internal problems in the Kurdistan region.
A year after Jalal Talabani and Nawshirwan Mustafa had signed a joint action plan; both parties have been blaming each other for not honouring the agreement. Although the PUK-Gorran alliance is hard to fulfill, as both are competing for the same Kurdish constituency in the Sulaymaniah and Halabja provinces, this alliance is still significant towards shaping internal Kurdish politics. The intensification of conflicts in public and announcement of the formation of the decision-making body of the wings of Kosrat Rasul and Barham Salih (the former PUK’s second deputy) after nearly a month of signing the agreement with Gorran showed the presence of perennial conflicts between the PUK factions. The problems and crises that are afflicting the PUK become an obstacle to the joint committees of the PUK and Movement for Change, preventing them from completing their efforts to unify the two parties. However, according to information received by Rudaw media network, the PUK decision Making Body, is not satisfied with the negotiations between Gorran and the majority of the Political Bureau. Spokesman for the PUK Decision Making Body, Shalaw Ali Askari, said “the delegation that met with Gorran should have included members of the decision-making body, but the other wing was the one who identified the people”. Even though the decision body in their announcement message shows that they are committed to implementing the agreement. Simultaneously, a large segment of the young leaders of Gorran, which opposes unity with the PUK, believe that the efforts to achieve unity is not as easy as it seems, adding that the reasons and motives behind the separation of leaders of the PUK and the establishment of Gorran in 2009 have not been dealt with yet.
Referendum: A New Phase of PUK-Gorran Political Conflict
In the past year, the PUK suffered from internal divisions due to the deteriorating health and subsequent death of its founding leader Jalal Talabani. This resulted in a leadership vacuum in Kurdistan’s oppositional sphere, which is exploited by the ruling KDP. The KDP leadership has also been successful in upsetting the PUK-Gorran agreement by offering incentives to some PUK leaders. Even faction PUK groups, such as Gorran, challenged the influence of the PUK, not only in KRI but also in Iraq. After Massoud Barzani’s call to hold a referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan on 25 September 2017, Kurdish-Kurdish political differences began to surface. The Movement for Change demanded not to exploit the referendum in the region for the benefit of a party, family, or specific person. The movement stressed that the referendum is a partisan project, and should not be an excuse to avoid the corruption in oil imports and suspicious oil contracts. To avoid accusations that it was betraying Kurdish nationalism, the KDP’s traditional political rival and some PUK officials, namely the first deputy of general secretary and few politburo members, grudgingly supported the referendum. But the third main force in Iraqi Kurdistan’s politics, Gorran, refused to do so. Gorran also boycotted a parliamentary session held on 15 September 2017, where 68 of the assembly’s 111 members nonetheless approved a motion to hold the independence referendum because holding a referendum under the current complex circumstances marked by numerous crises and an uncertain future does not serve this strategy. Rather, it is a dangerous step for now and the future of the nation, Gorran said in a joint statement.
The main faction of the PUK also boycotted Barzani’s referendum preparation meeting and released a joint declaration with Gorran to call on the government to reactivate Kurdistan’s parliament before the referendum. Similar to Gorran and other opposition parties, the PUK has been in favour of a parliamentary system for Kurdistan’s future—and thus, it is critical of the presidential system envisioned by the KDP. As a result of the attempt of Barzani to invest the results of the referendum by pressuring his political opponents through the formation of a political council led by Erbil in early October 2017 without consulting with the rest of the political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan. This has escalated differences between the two main parties in the region. The party stated that the purpose of the referendum of separation was not for the Kurdish people and the people are still paying the price of stubbornness vis-à-vis Barzani. They also condemned “the Political Leadership of Kurdistan – Iraq” that was formed out of the High Referendum Council. Gorran said the members of the council were seeking to replace legitimate institutions and called for its dissolution. Similarly, due to the participation of one PUK faction and the formation of the Political Leadership without consultation with the political parties, the member of the Political Bureau of PUK, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, hinted in a statement that the formation of this Political Leadership does not carry legal legitimacy, and will deepen the problems and dismantle the unity of the Kurdish parties, affecting the joint agreement. This step indicates that the faction of PUK led by Kosrat Rasul, continued their erroneous attitudes and decisions, which worsened the situation between Gorran and the PUK.
After the referendum, which was opposed by Baghdad and the rest of the world, the Iraqi government imposed order on the disputed areas, most notably the oil-rich Kirkuk, which contributed about half of the income of the region. In the face of this political turmoil, Massoud Barzani tried to defend his strategic miscalculation by charging the opposition forces (the main faction of PUK) with treason. The loss of disputed areas, oil, and border crossings isolated the region and exacerbated the conflict between the political parties, namely PUK and Gorran. A short lived tactical alliance between PUK and Gorran, with the aim of divesting the KDP from its monopoly of power was not successful. In the wake of the takeover of Kirkuk and the disputed areas by Iraqi forces and the withdrawal of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces from the city, the Movement for Change National Assembly calls for the dissolution of KRG cabinet and its replacement with an interim national salvation government following Iraq’s takeover of Kirkuk and the disputed areas that would enter into dialogue with Baghdad and prepare for elections. They also called on the leaders responsible for what happened in disputed territories to “resign as they had announced in the media that they will take responsibility for any bad consequences of the referendum”.
Predictably, after the withdrawal of the Movement for Change from the Kurdistan Regional Government, on 20 December 2017, it announced its suspension of the political agreement signed with the PUK against the backdrop of recent developments in the KRI. The PUK reluctantly implemented the agreement once it was signed and issued resolutions completely contrary to its contents such as the reactivation of parliament an supporting Barzani’s partisan projects and the steps of reform, according to a member of the National Council of Gorran, Abdul Razaq Sharif. In a statement, Gorran said that the ruling parties, the KDP and PUK, continued on the course of wide-level “corruption”, and drove the KRI to economic and financial failures and precipitating the downfall of the Kurdistan Region’s vote on independence. On 11 January 2018, the Kurdish Change Movement announced its alliance with Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal) and the newly established Coalition for Justice and Democracy (CJD), led by the former breakaway faction of the PUK party, Barham Salih, in Kirkuk and the disputed areas. According to their joint agreement, Gorran and PUK are supposed to run in the upcoming Iraq and KRI elections on a joint list.
Gorran decided to suspend its agreement with the PUK and form a new political coalition with other political parties. The PUK does not want to end or suspend the agreement but it is still unable to implement its contents due to its internal crisis. Furthermore, a Gorran official welcomed the suspension of their agreement with PUK because the continuation of PUK in the KRI Cabinet and its reluctance to take a decisive stands on KDP’s erroneous policy in the region. In the light of the aforementioned developments, there are several possible scenarios.
The most likely scenario is that the suspension will lead to the abolition of the joint agreement. New parties have risen in Sulaymaniyah and new coalitions are being formed. It is a clear indication that the future political competition and even struggle between Gorran and PUK will affect stability in the area. The KDP want to limit the Green Zone political parties’ influence and dominate them. Suspending and ending the joint agreement with Gorran will provide an opportunity for the KDP to remain as the first dominant party in the region. Gorran and PUK worked on some issues that concern the KDP, including amendment of Presidential Law and change to the political system. Suspending the agreement will harm their objectives and delay political reform in the region. Due to its disappointment with the current cabinet, which is run by KDP and PUK, Gorran decided to withdraw from the KRG cabinet. Gorran is struggling to form a new alliance with other political forces for the upcoming elections. Isolating PUK and forming alliance with new rising political parties by Gorran will lead to deep political rivalry in Sulaymaniyah because according to the joint agreement, both sides must adhere to the content of the agreement and not enter into other agreements that contradict the current one, especially that both parties have agreed to co-ordinate in both regional and federal parliaments and contest the next elections on a joint list.
One Ruling Party Zone
In a worst-case scenario, the PUK will impose a political and military domination on the Green Zone. This will take place once other political parties, particularly Gorran and CJD, try to remove PUK from administrative rule in the area. It is clear that due to the nature of the KDP and its domination in Erbil and Dohuk, the Yellow Zone will remain safe (undivided politically) in the upcoming elections. The recent developments in the last three years could confirm that the KDP did not allow any party to challenge the balance of power in the zone, and if they are aware of any subversive attempts, the KDP will shut down the borders with the Green Zone and prevent party leaders from entering it. The main focus of Gorran, CJD, New Generation, and even Islamic parties in the Green Zone deter KDP’s political dominations in KRI. They tried to shift the political balance against to PUK by controlling the political administrative and security forces in Sulaymaniyah but this is unacceptable for the PUK. For Gorran and other opposition parties, the PUK is the main cause of continued political stagnation in the region due to its persistent support for KDP’s opaque policy and post-referendum political and military setback in KRI’s disputed territories because a faction of the PUK, led by Kosrat Rasul, supported Barzan’s unilateral policy unconditionally. This not only harmed the PUK, but also outraged the other political parties, mainly its political ally Gorran. The PUK see this as a plot against its long-term political domination in the region, and as a result, it resorted to building a similar ruling model that was enacted in Erbil, which is dominated by the KDP.
Adopt Harmonic Style
The best-case scenario would be for the Green Zone to reactivate the agreement between the PUK and Gorran and guarantee the stability of the region and the arrangement of the Kurdish region. The mechanism for activating the political agreement between the two parties will help resolve the economic crisis and re-establish a relationship with Baghdad. On issues relating to ties between KRI and the federal government, Article 13 of the Agreement states “the parties agree on the need to find appropriate solutions to the problems between the region and Baghdad through dialogue, and on the basis of national interests and constitution.” This agreement can also unify the Kurdish region and bring all political parties closer to solving problems and improving the living conditions of its citizens, especially if the joint agreement is left open to other parties. Due to changes in the political landscape in KRG, especially in the Green Zone, the PUK and Gorran leaders realized that they cannot achieve much in the long run if they are not part of a larger political structure.
Therefore, the deal could create a win-win situation for both parties, which might make it suitable in the short and long runs. Both parties should also participate in a single list in the upcoming elections, stressing the change of the political system by electing the president of the region within the parliament and granting the prime minister executive power. What is expected from the PUK after the upcoming general conference of the party in early 2018 is the implementation of its political agreement with Gorran, as it believes that this agreement is a wall of resistance against the political dominance of non-democratic groups and the emergence of an unjust regime or a dictatorship in the Kurdistan Region.
This article explored the many layers of skirmish in the wider context of relations between the PUK and Gorran. The head of a coalition State of Law, Nuri al-Maliki, said that the political agreement between PUK and Gorran would converge and end the differences between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Region. On the contrary, it has unfortunately divided the PUK, prompting them to suspend the joint agreement. At the moment, both parties are in a loss – loss situation, and their shared stronghold is bracing itself for increased political rivalry. The loss of territories has also led to public disputes between the PUK and Gorran because Gorran blames one PUK faction of supporting Barzani’s unilateral referendum, precipitating the political and military failures of the Kurds, which consequently has isolated the KRI.
As the final aforementioned scenario has shown, the reactivation of the agreement between the PUK and Gorran could enhance the stability of the region and the arrangement of the Kurdish region, and bring about a win – win situation for the both parties. The activation of the joint agreement would lead to the de-escalation of political rivalry between Gorran and the PUK in the Green Zone, and the acceleration of the political and economic reforms in the region.
Address: Sulaimanyah – Kurdistan Region – Iraq