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 Iraqi Kurdistan's Ruling Parties Split Over Regional Premiership

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Iraqi Kurdistan's Ruling Parties Split Over Regional Premiership  1.11.2011  
By Joel Wing -

November 1, 2011

Kurdish President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have ruled Kurdistan since the 1990s. The two parties were once equals, ran together in elections, and signed a series of power sharing agreements. In the last couple years however, the KDP has been in the ascendency as the PUK has lost members to the new Change List. This has led to growing divisions between the two, which is now being played out over the Kurdistan premiership.

In November 2011, the PUK and KDP are supposed to exchange the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) premiership. Current KRG Prime Minister Barham Salih of the PUK has been in office since November 2009.               

Former Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani (R) with current Prime Minister Barham Salih.
When he steps down, Massoud’s nephew Nechirvan Barzani will replace him. Nechirvan was the premier from 2005-2009. Some in the PUK think that the KDP should allow Salih to stay in office for two more years like they did with Barzani. Nechirvan was originally supposed to step down in 2008, but President Talabani agreed to let him keep his position against the will of his own party’s politburo. Sources in the KDP have told several Kurdish papers that they want the premiership back. This is a sign of the growing divide between the two parties. The PUK expect the KDP to reciprocate for allowing Nechirvan staying in office for four years by allowing Salih to do the same, but the KDP feels more powerful now, and does not want to give the PUK anything it doesn’t have to.

The reason why the KDP is pushing to regain the premiership is because the PUK is much weaker now than in previous years. Talabani’s party has lost many of its members to the opposition Change List. In the 2009 regional parliamentary elections for instance, the Change List won in Sulaimaniyah, the PUK’s home province. The decline in the PUK’s standing has led some in the KDP to argue that they should run Kurdistan unilaterally, and not share power with the PUK anymore. This opinion has been building up within the Barzani clan for quite some time, and is finally coming out publicly.

Relinquishing the regional premiership is part of the power sharing agreement the two parties signed back in 2006. On January 20, 2006, the PUK and KDP signed the Kurdistan Regional Government Unification Agreement. It divided up all the offices and administration in Kurdistan, as well as the regional and Iraqi presidencies. Under the deal, each party would hold the premiership for two years, and then pass it off to the other. The two parties signed two other power sharing agreements back in 1992 and 1998. The initial one broke down in 1994, and led to a civil war, that was ended by the second deal. When that one expired, they signed the latest one in 2006. Now that the balance of power between the PUK and KDP is breaking down, so could the agreement.

The PUK started off as a breakaway faction and rival to the KDP. In the 1990s and after the 2003 invasion, they came to be partners, and were roughly equal in standing. In the last several years, the PUK has been losing its support in Kurdistan. The KDP has taken advantage of this situation by asserting their dominance over regional politics. The latest sign of this growing tension is the KDP’s demand to regain the KRG premiership, despite the PUK’s request to hold onto it for two more years like they did with the KDP’s Nechirvan Barzani. With the power shift between the two parties, there’s no reason for the KDP to give into the PUK’s demands. Despite this, the two will maintain the public appearance of continued friendship and cooperation. The reality is that unless Talabani can manufacture a major comeback, his party will be increasingly marginalized by the KDP in the Kurdistan region, and then national politics.

Abu-Bakir, Idris, “KDP and PUK dispute potential swap of Prime Minister,” AK News, 9/29/11
Ahmed, Hevidar, “KDP Source: We’re Taking Premiership,” Rudaw, 10/15/11
Alaaldin, Ranj, “Troubled times in Iraqi Kurdistan,” Guardian, 7/23/09
Amnesty International, “Hope and Fear, Human rights in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq,” April 2009
Danly, James, “The 2009 Kurdish Elections,” Institute for the Study of War, 7/23/09
Mohammed, Jaza, “should he stay or should he go? doubts over iraqi Kurdish pm’s resignation,” Niqash, 10/6/11
Rudaw, “PUK Official: Party Won’t Run With KDP in Kurdistan Election,” 10/10/11

Joel Wing, with an MA in International Relations, Joel Wing has been researching and writing about Iraq since 2002. His acclaimed blog, Musings on Iraq, is currently listed by the New York Times and the World Politics Review. In addition, Mr. Wing’s work has been cited by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Guardian and the Washington Independent. You may visit his Blog Musings On Iraq at

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