Brawling Over Power Sharing in the KRG

By Winthrop Rogers

Elections for the Parliament of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Southern Kurdistan (north Iraq) are currently scheduled for November 18, 2023, more than a year after they were originally planned for October 1, 2022. However, the prospect for either another delay or a deeply flawed election both remain possible due to continued tensions between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Failure to hold procedurally sound elections on time would speak volumes about the dismal relationship between the ruling parties and highlight their dismissive attitude towards basic democratic processes.

In order to better understand this dynamic, it is important to look at how things went wrong last year, what pieces need to be in place for on-time elections this year, and what issues are preventing the KDP and PUK from coming to an agreement. Finally, this piece will assess what the fallout could be if there is a further delay both in terms of domestic politics and the Kurdistan Region’s reputation with its foreign partners.

Background and Technical Issues

The current Kurdistan Parliament was originally chosen in elections held on September 30, 2018. The KDP won a plurality of the 111 seats with 45, followed by the PUK with 21 and the Change Movement (Gorran) with twelve. Together, these three parties would go on to form a tripartite government with a 77-seat majority, supported by the eleven MPs who hold seats reserved for minority groups and two MPs from smaller parties.

The New Generation Movement, a newly formed opposition group, came in fourth with 8 seats, while the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) won five seats and the (now-renamed) Kurdistan Justice Group won eight. These numbers have changed slightly. For example, all but three New Generation parliamentarians elected on that list remain affiliated with the party. Nevertheless, the overall balance between the parties remains essentially the same with the KDP holding a large plurality.

The new parliament first sat on February 18, 2019 and the cabinet came together that summer after a prolonged government formation process. Currently, Rewaz Fayaq of the PUK holds the speakership, while the KDP and the Turkmen Front supply her deputies.

Ideally, parliamentary elections for the Kurdistan Region are held every four years, although this has never occurred. Even so, last year’s one-year extension is unprecedented because the delay in elections was not caused either by short technical delays like in 2009 and 2013, or by profound political crises like the aftermath of the 2017 independence referendum. Instead, the delay in 2022 was caused by the inability of the KDP and the PUK to set aside partisan advantage-seeking in the larger democratic interest. To manage this situation, the government parties opted not to go to the people and instead controversially voted in November 2022 to extend the term of the current parliament by a year to give the parties time to resolve their differences.

The Kurdistan Region presidency, which is currently held by Nechirvan Barzani of the KDP, has the responsibility to call for an election and set a date. Each time the Kurdistan Region holds an election, the parliament needs to pass a law reauthorizing the mandate of the Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission (IHERC). Without this in place, the devolved government in Erbil cannot legally hold elections on its own, with that responsibility theoretically reverting to the Iraqi federal government. Importantly, IHERC says it needs six months to organize the election, meaning that its mandate needed to be reauthorized around May 18 to meet that deadline in a strict sense.

Minority Seats

At the heart of the current disagreement between the KDP and the PUK over elections is the role played by the reserved minority seats, which critics argue are de facto controlled by the KDP and give it an in-built advantage in parliament. For the PUK, this undermines the key principle of “50-50,” where the two ruling parties share power relatively equally, while opposition parties view it as a naked power grab by the KDP. These seats are contested by parties using separate lists with the entire Kurdistan Region as a single constituency. Voters can choose to cast their one vote in the election for a party on this list or for an ordinary seat. There are no separate electoral rolls for members of minority groups. In general, successful candidates on these lists require far fewer votes to win a seat, with only a few thousand votes needed for Christian and Turkmen seats and less than 700 for the Armenian representative.

In 1992, the new Kurdistan Assembly was established with five seats reserved for Christians as a way to include Assyrian, Chaldean, and Mandean communities living in the Kurdistan Region into the new political institutions that were established following the 1991 Raparin. Most Christians live in KDP-controlled areas in Erbil and Duhok. In 2008, the PUK proposed adding five seats for Turkmen and an Armenian representative. At the time, the party had a strong presence in Kirkuk, where many Turkmens live, and the proposal was aimed at courting members of that community. Over the past decade however, the KDP has increased its influence over these seats through candidate selection and elite co-option. As a result, the MPs representing the reserved seats routinely vote with the KDP, very nearly giving the party an outright majority in parliament.

Some minority activists criticize the current system and argue that the arrangement does not reflect the authentic interests of their communities. While some elites are given important positions, like KRG transportation minister Ano Jawhar and Kurdistan Parliament Secretary Muna Kevachi, ordinary citizens from minority groups tend to face discrimination in the Kurdistan Region. Disputes over land between Kurds and minorities are a common, if underreported, phenomenon. These concerns are largely lost in the current debate over the issue of reserved minority seats, which focus on KDP-PUK tensions.

Scholars and negotiators have proposed a number of solutions in response to these criticisms. None has proved workable however, because the partisan interests of the KDP and the PUK are fundamentally opposed on the issue, which prevents compromise. Moreover, it is not clear how some of the solutions will actually serve minority communities. For example, in mid-April, UNAMI proposed geographically tying two of the reserved seats to the Sulaymaniyah Governorate, which is controlled by the PUK. The party went further and asked for four seats for minorities in areas under its control. Partially due to this overreach and because few minorities actually live in this area, the proposal was quickly rejected. As far as negotiations over the specific issue of the reserved minority seats, this was the last substantive development, but a great deal of politics has happened since then that make it even less likely the issue will be resolved.

Brawl in Parliament

By late April, the prospect for holding elections in November looked increasingly unlikely. But in the first week of May, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Barbara Leaf visited Erbil and told the KDP and PUK leaderships that they needed to work together and hold elections. This intense foreign pressure jumpstarted talks between the two sides, with KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and KRG Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani meeting face-to-face for the first time in more than half-a-year just days after Leaf’s visit. This sparked hopes that the two parties would make progress, despite missing the formal six-month deadline to reauthorize the electoral commission on May 18.

That fledgling, tenuous cooperation was dashed on May 21 when the KDP Deputy Speaker of Parliament Hemin Hawramy unilaterally added a vote to reauthorize IHERC’s mandate to the parliamentary agenda, leaving the issue of reserved minority seats unresolved. Speaker Fayaq refused to sign the order. At the session the next day, Fayaq attempted to adjourn proceedings, but was shouted down by Hawramy. Members of Parliament began brawling on the floor in full view of the cameras. Afterwards, the KDP deputy speaker claimed to have legally held a vote to reauthorize IHERC’s mandate with 58 MPs voting in favor, including all KDP legislators and the eleven minority MPs. The KDP loudly proclaimed that the commission was reauthorized and sent a letter to IHERC advising the body that it could start its work. The PUK denounced the move and said that the KDP had acted illegally.

The KDP clearly understood the message from the US and the Western consulates in Erbil to hold elections and saw an opportunity to put the PUK on the back foot. Its unilateral move is viewed negatively by other parties, including the opposition, but it should be understood in the KDP’s larger program of destroying “50-50” once and for all and solidifying its status as the most powerful party in the Kurdistan Region. Even if its methods are unsavory from the point of view of Kurdish unity, it has made the PUK look anti-democratic by appearing to refuse to move forward with elections.

Despite this seemingly decisive move, it is still not clear whether the Kurdistan Region will hold elections in November. The PUK and some opposition parties will likely launch a legal challenge to IHERC’s reauthorization, which will probably play out in Iraqi federal court. At the moment, opposition party New Generation appears to backing elections, but other parties may decide not to participate in the KDP-driven process or even try to prevent polls from being held in certain areas. These factors will become clear later.

Either a delay or a procedurally unsound election would be an embarrassment for the Kurdistan Region at the international level. Especially as Hewlêr (Erbil) and Silêmanî (Sulaymaniyah) are highly dependent on their international partners for support. Over the past two decades, Washington, London, and others have looked to the Kurdistan Region as a place of relative democracy and stability, particularly in comparison with what was taking place in central and southern Iraq. This attitude is changing, both as conditions improve in the rest of Iraq and as poor governance in Hewlêr becomes harder to ignore. In general, the 2021 federal election in Iraq was well-regarded from a procedural standpoint, even if the government formation process proved frustrating. Even there, the KDP-PUK rivalry over the presidency played a negative role. It will be another blow to Kurdish self-governance if the upcoming election for the Kurdistan Parliament is seen as low-quality and lacking in legitimacy.

What is missing from the above account of tactics and intrigue is that authentic democracy is under threat in the Kurdistan Region. Following popular reaction to the brawl in parliament, many people expressed disgust and frustration at the scenes of MPs fighting in their own self-interest. The politics practiced in Hewlêr and Silêmanî does not serve the people, only those in power. For many voters, they will respond by staying home and refusing to cast a ballot for any party. That is not an apathetic choice, but a deliberate one that sends an important message. Unfortunately, expressions of popular frustration will fall on deaf ears in the ruling parties and be discounted by the Kurdistan Region’s international partners.

It will be extremely discouraging if the upcoming election does become an exercise in KDP vanity and PUK grievance. But the solution is not to prevent elections from taking place. Once the practice of holding regular elections is abandoned, citizens lose an important avenue for holding their leaders accountable. Elections in the Kurdistan Region have historically been deeply flawed, but losing this tool altogether is not a wise course of action.


  • Winthrop Rodgers

    Winthrop Rodgers is a journalist and researcher based in Silêmanî, Southern Kurdistan, who focuses on political economy and human rights. His work has been featured in Columbia Journalism Review, Al-Monitor, New Lines Magazine, the Middle East Institute, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.

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