Post-Referendum Transfer of Power in Iraqi Kurdistan

Media Coverage | November 16, 2017

On November 1, 2017, Kawa Hassan, director of EWI's Middle East and North Africa Program, gave an interview with Saut Al Hadath—a joint radio program of Deutsche Welle Arabic Service and Radio Voice Lebanon—analyzing the strategic implications of the Kurdish referendum and resignation of Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region. 

An English translation of the interview follows below:

Question (Q) 1: Let us take a step back. An overwhelming majority of the Kurds voted “yes” in the referendum for an independent Kurdistan. This is a truth that cannot be denied. Masoud Barzani played a big role [in bringing about this achievement]. The implications though were not well calculated by Barzani. Some even say Barzani wasted a unique opportunity to become a unique, historic Kurdish leader. It seems Washington want to keep the Barzani family in power. Do you think the Kurdish opposition has an opportunity to gain power, even if this could run against U.S. interests?

Kawa Hassan (KH): I agree with the view of the other speaker, that the Kurdish opposition is stronger than ever. There is to some extent a relatively strong civil society and independent media. But the opposition is deeply divided- recently they issued a joint statement calling for the resignation of the government and not only president Barzani. But so far, they haven’t been able to translate this demand into actual political action because they lack a strategic vision that would result in a common vision, broad-based coalition and program to change the status-quo. 

Q2: So, you mean the possibility for the Barzanis [to remain in power] is much stronger than the capacity of the opposition to [assume power]?

KH: That is right. At the same time, we should not forget that Barzani’s KDP party is internally divided as well. But other parties are also fragmented and divided. The other ruling party—the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is deeply divided. The main opposition party—the Change Movement (Gorran) is somewhat united in its position towards both ruling parties PUK and KDP but lacks the strategic vision and political imagination to go beyond saying “no” to the KDP and PUK and hence being able to translate statements into political action.

Q3: Given these deep divisions within and between parties, which political actors impact the political process and thus have the power to determine who will be the next president of the region?

KH: Both internal and external factors have impacts on the events on the ground. But at this juncture, I believe external factors have played a decisive role in the resignation of Barzani and its aftermath. Iraq, regional states, the U.S., and the UK have a lot of influence on political decisions and decision making in Iraqi Kurdistan. For instance, both the U.S. state department and British Foreign Office issued statements in which they welcomed the resignation of Masoud Barzani and expressed support for the prime minister Nechirvan Barzani [nephew of Masoud Barzani] and deputy prime minister Qubad Talabani. It seems at the moment—and this could change given the unpredictability and quick pace of events—there is a kind of “external consensus’ to support an internal transfer of power within the ruling families of Barzani and Talabani. Hence, currently the impact of the external factor is crucial but we shouldn’t belittle the internal factor.   

Q4: What is the intention of Baghdad toward Irbil, and how did the referendum unite Iran and U.S. in their opposition to Kurdish independence?

KH: First of all it is crucial to reiterate that the Kurdistan Region is a constitutionally recognized region. Iraqi leaders including al-Abadi and their Kurdish counterparts participated in the writing of the constitution in 2005 that recognizes the legality of the Kurdistan Region. So, if the Iraqi government wants to change the constitutionality of the Kurdistan Region, I don’t think they will have international or even regional support for all these actors have reiterated the need to reach peaceful solutions for the current standoff based on and within the framework of the constitution. This is a crucial point that would support the Kurdish position in future negotiations with Baghdad. As for the second part of your question, indeed the Kurdish referendum united U.S. and Iran in their opposition to the Kurdish aspiration for independence even though there are serious problems and conflicts between both countries. The reason is that there is a regional and international consensus to preserve the territorial integrity of Iraq (and Syria as well). Unfortunately, Barzani and his allies, as well as his Kurdish and international advisors, misread this consensus; they made a strategic miscalculation and as a result the Kurdistan region is now in a very difficult situation. But [if there is a political will] the Kurdish leadership can turn this disaster into an opportunity by putting the Kurdish house in order, engage with opposition and produce a united vision and program introduce more transparency and accountability by implementing [real economic and political] reforms, organize timely, free and fair elections, and show respect to dissenting ideas.

Q5: The critics and opposition criticized Barzani [for not leaving the office after termination of his controversial and extended tenue]. Now that he resigned and another member of the Barzani family has assumed executive powers, do you think the Kurdistan region will be more democratic and Erbil can negotiate with Baghdad from a strong position particularly after next election [scheduled for May 2018]?

KH: It seems that the current Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani [nephew of Masoud Barzani] will assume [most of Masoud’s power] until the next election. Will this lead to any structural changes in the nature of political system in the coming months? I don’t think so. The biggest challenge for the opposition, civil society and dissenting voices within both ruling parties is whether they will manage to develop a strategic vision and [new] political actions to challenge and change the status quo. Thus the question that today faces both the ruling parties and opposition is whether they will succeed in capitalizing on this existential moment to reform the system in the aftermath of revolutionary and historic leaders; the issue is bigger than persons and personalities. What is at stake is how to reform the system.

Q6: Is there a chance that new leaders will come to the fore that would be up to the task to reform the system and achieve Kurdish aspirations [for independence and good governance]? Is Nechirvan Barzani that kind of leader?

KH: Both ruling parties are not capable of reforming the system. Nechirvan Barzani is a pragmatic politician—he possess very good relations with Iraqi parties, regional and international powers. But the existential challenges are bigger than personalities [no matter how well connected and pragmatic they might be]. What is needed is the emergence of a united Kurdish vision and front that has the legitimacy to negotiate with Baghdad. Reforming the system depends on the strength of the opposition to translate ideas into actions and change the status quo. But I don’t see this happening any time soon.           

Click here to watch the full interview.      

"Kurdistan" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Kurdistan Photo كوردستان