New KRG Government and the Expectations
Following the political crisis that emerged in the wake of the September 30, 2018 elections, political parties in the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) were only able to form the government in 10 months. With the support of the Gorran for the agreement between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the political crisis was overcome and the government was formed. The first step towards the formation of the government was taken with the meeting at the KRG Parliament on 28 May, and KDP Vice President Nechirvan Barzani was elected to the chairman position which had been vacant after Masoud Barzani’s resignation in November 2017.
Nechirvan Barzani was sworn in on 10 June 2019, and then charged Masrour Barzani of the KDP, elected as prime minister at the session of the KRG parliament, to form the government. On July 10, Masrour Barzani announced the name of 23 ministers from the 24-person cabinet, took the vote of confidence from the parliament and took office. However, it was also noted that only the Minister of Natural Resources was not announced in the cabinet. In fact, the former Minister of Natural Resources, Ashti Hawrami, who had taken office for three terms in the past, was anticipated to retake it; thus, no name was brought forward was a surprise to many.
In the Erbil government, Masrour Barzani was assisted by Qubat Talabani, son of Jalal Talabani, founder of the PUK, who also served as deputy prime minister. Serving as Minister of Education in the previous cabinet, Pshtiwan Sadiq became the Minister of Awqaf and Religious Affairs in the new cabinet. Thus, Qubat Talabani was the only person to re-serve at the same office while Pshtiwan Sadiq remained in the government, albeit in another ministry. In fact, all the names in the new cabinet changed. At the same time, 3 ministries were noted to be given to women in the cabinet.
New balance in KRG politics
The KRG’s new government established under Masrour Barzani's prime ministry re-implemented the KDP-PUK agreement which was broken in 2013. The KDP did not want to form a government without an agreement with the PUK. Especially after the independence referendum process, the PUK's position in Kurdish domestic politics was decisive for the future of the KRG. Although the PUK had a leadership problem after Jalal Talabani's death, the leadership of the party managed the crisis well and was able to maintain its position as the main actor in Kurdish domestic politics in Iraq.
At this point, on October 16, 2017, the PUK's agreement with the Iraqi central government in its military operation to restore control from the KRG in Kirkuk and disputed territories was the most strategic move in terms of its role in Kurdish domestic politics, and KDP was given the message that they could not take a step in Kurdish domestic politics without PUK. As a matter of fact, while the KDP had the chance to form a government by excluding PUK in the elections held on 30 September 2018, it did not prefer it and did reconcile with PUK. Even though the KDP had agreed with Gorran before the PUK and given the latter the message that it could form a government alone, the PUK saw this political bluff and did not rush to form a government.
The KDP and the PUK held intensive discussions on issues such as the governorship of Kirkuk, the sharing of ministries, oil revenues, relations with Baghdad, and who would have the Ministry of Justice in the Iraqi central government. This led to the establishment of the KRG government in about 10 months. The fact that the government took a long time to be formed and that the Minister of Natural Resources (responsible for oil and natural gas) was not been identified is a clear indication that the new KRG government is situated on sensitive balances. For the continuation of some points of dispute despite the formation of the government points out that new sensitivities may emerge in the future, leading to the breakdown of the political agreement.
The newly formed government is also a sign of a new era in terms of KRG politics. Unlike previous periods, it is not a government that includes all the groups entering the parliament but a majority government that has been formed. In addition to the New Generation Movement, which gathered effective support in a short time through dissenting rhetoric during the independence referendum process in the KRG and won 8 deputies in the elections, the Kurdistan Islamic Community (7 deputies) and the Kurdistan Islamic Union (5 deputies) remained in opposition by not being a part of the government. It was no surprise that the New Generation Movement remained in opposition. Nevertheless, it was noteworthy that Islamist parties were willing to gather under one roof before the election but failed to do so, agreed to stay in opposition. It would not be wrong to say that Kurdish Islamist groups born as oppositional movements in their nature have been making efforts to return to essence again.
On the other hand, the election of Nechirvan Barzani as president is a new situation for the KRG. Indeed, with Nechirvan Barzani, the KRG president started to be elected by the parliament instead of the people. On the other hand, the deaths of Jalal Talabani and Nechirvan Mustafa who have been crucial names of KRG politics and Masoud Barzani’s resignation from the presidency paved the way for relatively young leaders like Nechirvan Barzani, Masrour Barzani, Qubat Talabani, Bafel Talabani, Lahur Sheikh Jangi, Aras Sheikh Jangi and Shahsuvar Abdulwahit to show themselves in Kurdish politics. This may be the beginning of a new process in Kurdish domestic politics in Iraq.
That the two main actors of KRG's executive power, the president, Nechirvan Barzani, and the prime minister, Masrour Barzani, two young leaders considered to be rivals of one another as members of the same party, became the main determinants of politics may lead to the emergence of an interesting situation in KRG's domestic politics. Serving as the prime minister of the KRG until today, Nechirvan Barzani was overshadowed by Massoud Barzani, the KDP leader and former President of the KRG. Despite this, Nechirvan Barzani’s moderate and harmonious policies both in his relations with Baghdad and regional countries such as Turkey and Iran and in international politics let him become one of the popular leaders. Nechirvan Barzani thus proved his political presence despite all the weight of Massoud Barzani, both KDP leader and his uncle.
Although Masrour Barzani, who is the son of Massoud Barzani and has a strong political position especially due to his influence in the security organization of the KDP, has fallen behind Nechirvan Barzani in the KRG politics and in KDP's internal structure, he is still seen as Nechirvan Barzani’s rival. At this point, an obligation arose for the two rivals to work together in Kurdish domestic politics in Iraq. However, even though it is possible to say that KDP leader Masoud Barzani will be effective in politics as the de facto leader in the KRG, it would still be appropriate to say that both Nechirvan and Masrour Barzani will strive to gain an advantage in terms of their political careers. Both Nechirvan and Masrour Barzani are known to be preparing for the post- Masoud Barzani process and KDP leadership. In fact, it would not be wrong to assert that both leaders are making moves against each other. This competition is felt in every field from politics to economy, from security institutions to media institutions. For example, the Rudaw Media Group was founded with Nechirvan Barzani’s support and K24 with Masrour Barzani's support. This can be regarded as the most obvious example of the conflict between the two leaders. However, the troubles both in KRG's domestic politics and in its relations with Baghdad and other countries, and that Masoud Barzani maintains his strong leadership force the two leaders to work together.
Crises awaiting the new government
It is possible to evaluate the issues of mistrust among political parties, economic crisis and corruption that have a direct reflection on the society in KRG as the most important agenda items waiting for the government. As a matter of fact, the KDP, which is aware of this, followed an attitude to primarily solve the domestic political problems with a preliminary move before the government was formed. The KDP agreed with other important political forces in the region, namely, the PUK and Gorran; and made a change and created room for two vice presidents in the presidency in order for the PUK and Gorran to take part in the new government.
However, sharing concerning the powers of the president and prime minister is a problem, and it is likely that this problem is reflected in other areas and tasks. In this context, the balance that Masrour Barzani will develop with Nechirvan Barzani will be significant for the internal matters of both the KRG and KDP. In the event that a negative situation arises or an explicit competition emerges between Nechirvan Barzani and Masrour Barzani, the internal balance of the KDP may be shaken; what’s more, this situation is also likely to show its impact over KDP’s relations with other parties and adversely affect the political balance and stability in the KRG.
Masrour Barzani, on the other hand, is known as a politically conservative and nationalist figure. Although a diligent politician such as Nechirvan Barzani became the president of the KRG, that Masrour Barzani harden his position in relations with both other Kurdish parties and Baghdad and external actors in potential crises may bring about problems.
However, the current dialogue and harmony between Nechirvan and Masrour Barzani seem promising both for the KDP and the KRG's internal balances. In particular, following a moderate policy after his appointment to form a government, Masrour Barzani's attempt to establish a dialogue with all parties is an attitude that can ensure the elimination of internal problems in the KRG and back political cohesion and stability. Nonetheless, it is also a matter of concern whether Masrour Barzani will continue this attitude for a long time or not.
Relations with Turkey in the New Era
Turkey has shown an active stance in its foreign policy towards Iraq in recent years. Visits from Turkey to Iraq in the recent period are an indication of this phenomenon. That this very attitude has been welcomed by the Iraqi side becomes more visible if visits to Turkey from its neighbor are taken into consideration, and steps in this direction gradually get more concrete. Finally, between Turkey and Iraq, it was decided by both parties to establish a mechanism to make joint efforts to fight terrorism. However, it would not be wrong to say that Turkey takes into account the balance between Erbil-Baghdad as well. For during the visits from Turkey to Iraq, Turkish officials visit Baghdad and Erbil simultaneously, which is an important indicator of this Turkish stance. The election of Nechirvan Barzani, the politician which has the best dialogue with Turkey among the politicians in the KRG, stands out as an important element for the dialogue to be developed between the KRG and Turkey. However, Prime Minister Masrour Barzani's attitude could be described as a decisive factor for Turkey-KRG relations.
One of the most important items in Ankara-Erbil relations will be the approach of the KRG, especially towards the terrorist organization PKK. Damaging the future of the relations between the KRG and Turkey as well as the internal security and coherence of the region, PKK gradually strengthens its presence in Sinjar and in KRG, and this is one of the factors that puts Barzani into trouble regarding the KRG-Turkey bilateral relations in the new era. As a matter of fact, about a week after the establishment of the government, in one of Arbil's safest and most strategic area, a restaurant located in a region near the Arbil airport, the assassination of a Turkish diplomat serving in Turkey's Erbil Consulate General in a restaurant located in a neighborhood near the Arbil airport, one of Arbil's safest and most strategic area, will be an important test for KRG’s new government. Although all details are not yet clear, evidence that the attack was systematic and planned (such as the use of silenced weapons in the attack) could lead to a loss of confidence for the new government. While it is not for sure if the attack directly targeted the Turkish diplomat or not, this attack will lead Turkey to take more careful and cautious steps. Especially in case the perpetrators of the attack cannot be found or revealed at all in the short term, it is not likely for Turkey to upgrade the relations with Erbil.
However, in terms of the relationship KRG will develop with Turkey, the resolution of issues between Erbil and Baghdad, and compliance to be achieved between the two parties will be of great importance. For Turkey has established a strong dialogue with the Iraqi central government and taken important steps in developing the bilateral relations in recent years. Therefore, expecting Turkey to improve relations with the KRG without considering the Iraqi central government is not possible under the current circumstances. It may be mentioned that the dialogue that Erbil will develop with Baghdad on several issues such as the Kirkuk issue, disputed regions, oil sales, trade relations and customs and the solutions to these problematic points will also have positive effects on Ankara-Erbil relations. For Turkey does not regard Baghdad and Erbil as alternatives to one another, and evaluates both parties as complementary elements to its Iraq policy.
In case Masrour Barzani exhibits a position that takes into account the demands of Turkey, KRG may be argued to not experience problems in its relations with Turkey and to maintain the course of developing relations that had been deteriorated after the independence referendum held in the KRG in 2017. At this point, Masrour Barzani also seems to give positive messages to Turkey. Indeed, that Iraqi Turkmen Front MP Aydın Maruf was appointed to the District Ministry in the new cabinet through Turkey’s explicit request is a sign of Masrour Barzani's positive approach towards Turkey. That Turkey was the country to be represented at the highest diplomatic level (with Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlut Cavusoglu’s participation) during Nechirvan Barzani’s inauguration ceremony is a manifestation of the support for the political process in the KRG and the willingness to develop good relations with the KRG. In addition, participation at such a level may also be considered as an indicator of personal support to Nechirvan Barzani. Along with the possibility that Nechirvan Barzani’s election as president can be regarded as an advantage for Turkey, that Barzani made his first visit abroad to Turkey also shows the importance he gives to Turkey-KRG relations. As is the case, it would not be wrong to say that Ankara-Erbil relations will follow a positive course in the coming period.
This article was published on 18 July 2019 in the Anadolu Agency news analysis section with the title “IKBY’de Yeni Hükümet ve Beklentiler” (New Government in the KRG and the Expectations)”.