The future of PUK after Jalal Talabani

The decease of Jalal Talabani, one of the significant figures of the Middle Eastern, Iraqi and Kurdish politics, will lead to important consequences in terms of Kurdish domestic politics, notably PUK under his leadership and Kurds’ presence in Iraq.

It is evident that the decease of Jalal Talabani, one of the significant figures of the Middle Eastern, Iraqi and Kurdish politics, on 3 October 2017 following his long lasting disease will lead to important consequences in terms of Kurdish domestic politics, notably the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) under his leadership and Kurds’ presence in Iraq. It will not be wrong to say that the divisions which were felt in PUK after the outbreak of Talabani’s disease in 2012 and the fight for leadership will be more intense in the post-Talabani period. In this regard, it can be foreseen that the changing balances in KRG will be more complicated with the illegal referendum process after the decease of Jalal Talabani.


PUK’s structure and current situation

PUK which separated from KDP in 1975 was established under the leadership of Jalal Talabani and Ibrahim Ahmad. Besides being one of the most important examples of Sulaymaniyah-based (Soran-based) politics, it was also involved in Kurdish politics in Iraq together with KDP, Masoud Barzani’s party leading the Iraqi Kurdish politics. PUK is a Kurdish party which has the most powerful basis in Kirkuk, Diyalah and Salahaddin as well as Sulaymaniyah. Disturbed by the conservative, traditional structure based on the tribal links in KDP, Jalal Talabani and Ibrahim Ahmad tried to turn PUK into a mostly left-oriented, liberalist, revolutionist party. Within this framework, PUK has included different fractions such as Marxists, revolutionists, democrats since its establishment. These groups united under a single roof by dissolving themselves in 1991 and thus, seemingly removing different orientations in PUK. However, the differences and competition among these groups continued.

After the first Gulf War, a no-flight zone was set in northern Iraq in 1991, which led PUK to establish a joint autonomous administration with KDP in the region and to gain the Sulaymaniyah-based power. PUK turned out to be another version of KDP in time. The civil war between KDP and PUK in 1994 hardly ended in 1998 and a dual administration emerged under the leadership of KDP and PUK in northern Iraq.

Although PUK is not a tribe or family party against KDP as of its establishment, the family ties in PUK have been felt in recent times. Despite this, it is not a party in which tribalism is dominant as in KDP. The most important reason for this is the weak tribal links in Sulaymaniyah which constitute the essential basis of the party and long lasting Arab control in Kirkuk which is the other region in which the party is powerful. On the other hand, strengthening the family ties in PUK drew some reactions in the party. Indeed, Nawshirwan Mustafa who is one of the closest people to Jalal Talabani and is among the leaders of Marxist tradition in PUK separated from PUK and established Goran Movement in 2009. One of the basic criticism of Goran Movement was that PUK turned out to be a family or a company.


PUK becomes the third party

The separation of Nawshirwan Mustafa from the party and the establishment of Goran Movement by him weakened PUK. As of 2007, debates continued on the review of the party organization and on the congress which had not been held for long in order to stop the unfavorable course in PUK. This need was felt further especially with the bad performance of PUK in Sulaymaniyah on 25 July 2009 and the unexpected success of Goran. Serious problems arouse such as the extreme inefficacity of the party organization in KRG, large-scale corruption, the emergence of different pressure groups in the party and as a consequence, the fight for leadership. These problems were reflected in PUK’s performance in the elections in KRG and it hardly became the third party after Goran Movement in the 2013 elections. Having lost a large number of votes after the disease of Jalal Talabani in 2012, PUK saw the same decrease in the local elections and came after Goran in Sulaymaniyah in the local elections simultaneously  held with the general elections.

Politically speaking, this recession also showed itself at administrational level and KDP, the winner of the 2013 elections, sat at the table with Goran for the first time in the government formation negotiations. These elections were a turning point for both PUK and Kurdish domestic politics. While PUK lost its second party position in KRG, the strategic alliance formed due to the sharing of administration with KDP in 2004 was also broken. Therefore, it would be appropriate to say that PUK turned out to be an opposition party.


Talabani’s presidency

The strategy developed by KDP also has an important share in the fall of PUK as well as the internal reasons since KDP became the most influential power in KRG while the Kurdish politics in Baghdad were left upon PUK. Jalal Talabani could not spend sufficient time for KRG domestic politics and was left out of the developments since Jalal Talabani was the president of Iraq in post-2003 period.

Therefore, either he could not react instantly and effectively to the developments both in the party and in KRG or it was too late. Despite the regional presidency of KDP (Masoud Barzani) besides strategic alliance, the abstention of KDP from sharing the power with PUK and the presidency of PUK in the government (Barham Salih) only for three years in spite of the necessity for PUK and KDP to hand over the presidency from 2004 to 2013 also limited PUK’s influence in KRG. Indeed, it became clearly apparent in the 2014 general elections in Iraq that the strategic alliance between KDP and PUK was harmed and the candidates joining the elections in a joint list until that moment took part in the 2014 elections in separate lists.


Emergence of DAESH threat

DAESH emerged and reached a power which allowed it to threaten KRG directly in 2014, which postponed the resolution of the problems both in KRG and in PUK whereas the reasons such as the effective role of PUK peshmerga in the fight against DAESH, the loss of functioning by the government formed under the cooperation of KDP and Goran and the insistence of Masoud Barzani in remaining as president slowed the recession in PUK even though they could not stop it. Although PUK tries to set the direction of Kurdish domestic politics by signing the strategic deal with Goran in May 2016, it is not possible to say that it has succeeded in the current situation.

The end of the fight against DAESH, the increasing influence of Masoud Barzani with the referendum decision in KRG, the process of general and local elections in KRG and finally, the decease of Jalal Talabani started to unveil the neglected problems in KRG again.


Separations from KRG and the future of the party

Although the disagreements and the fight for leadership in PUK escalated after the disease of Jalal Talabani in 2012, Talabani’s being alive as a symbolic leader prevented the deepening of the fractures in PUK. However, it is possible that the disagreements and competition which have become increasingly apparent at the current point will lead to consequences that will affect the future of PUK in case of lack of compromise.

At this point, the fight for leadership in PUK and the prominent actors in this competition should be initially taken into consideration. Having also served as the Prime Minister of KRG in 2009-2012, Second Deputy Secretary General of PUK Barham Salih, PUK politburo officer Mulla Bahtiyar, First Deputy Secretary General Kosrat Rasul and Jalal Talabani's spouse Hero Talabani come forth in this fight. Hero Talabani led the decision making mechanisms in the party during the disease of Jalal Talabani and she was supported especially by the members of Talabani family.

Having regard to women's role in the Middle Eastern politics, it can be thought that Hero Talabani has insufficient leadership characteristics, but the political background of her family (her father Ibrahim Ahmad is the founder of PUK) and the active role she undertook in the process following the disease of Jalal Talabani are the factors increasing her chance. On the other hand, if she does not want to be the leader, it is expected that a figure referred to by Hero Talabani wil be one of the most influential candidate leaders. In such case, Jalal and Hero Talabani's sons Qubat and Bafel Talabani will be the strongest candidates. Qubat Talabani currently serves as Deputy Prime Minister in KRG but he is criticized for remaining passive in the shadow of Prime Minister Nawshirwan Barzani. On the other hand, Qubat Talabani who returned to northern Iraq after living in the USA for long years and is criticized for being culturally alienated from his region is not supported by the PUK grassroots and the party organization. Bafel Talabani, on his part, has never left his region and has continously played an active role in the poltics although he is younger than Qubat Talabani. However, he seems to lack in political capability and charisma. Furthermore, Bafel Talabani is married to the daughter of Mulla Bahtiyar, one of the candidate leaders in PUK, which can be described as an obstacle before him.

If no strong candidate comes out from Talabani family, it is possible to say that Mulla Bahtiyar is one of the lucky figures in terms of PUK leadership. Mulla Bahtiyar's support to Hero Talabani during the disease of Jalal Talabani, his abstention from acting against the PUK headquarters and his loyalty to the organization increased his influence in the party grassroots and the organization. His in-law relations arising from tha marriage of his daughter wih the son of Talabani family are also considered among the advantages that Mulla Bahtiyar has. However, Mulla Bahtiyar is of the origin of Hanekin (Diyalah) and is known as Feyli (Shiite Kurd), which causes comments that he will not be accepted in Sulaymaniyah.

Kosrat Rasul seems to be another strong candidate for the leadership in PUK. Kosrat Rasul who is from Erbil and is a former member of peshmerga has a powerful military structuring and is a popular figure in PUK grassroots. However, excessive Erbil-based acts of Kosrat Rasul caused PUK to keep away from Sulaymaniyah, fundamental center of power. Therefore, it is largely believed that Kosrat Rasul will not be an inclusive leader.

Having previously been in alliance with Kosrat Rasoul but started to act independently later on, Barham Salih is also an important figure regarding PUK leadership. Especially the strong relations with the USA and the West, Salih’s rising as an innovative figure and his origin of Sulaymaniyah which is unique among the candidate leaders outside Talabani family put Barham Salih into an advantageous position. However, without resigning from PUK, he has submitted a list named Coalition for Democracy and Justice to take part in the elections which are planned to be held in November 2017 but may be postponed. This has lowered the possibility of PUK leadership for Barham Salih.

On the other hand, the organizational divisions in parallel with the fight for leadership are also among the important problems which will determine the future of the party. The lack of coordination and divisions among the provincial offices of PUK in Erbil, Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk was remarkable especially during the process of illegal referendum. For example, PUK’s Kirkuk provincial office opposed the referendum held in Kirkuk but the insistence of PUK and the pressure it imposed by sending forces led by Kosrat Rasul to Kirkuk showed the lack of coordination between PUK headquarters and provincial offices. Similarly, there were also different views in PUK on the departure of Kirkuk governor Najmaldin Karim dismissed from office by Iraqi Federal Court. Aso Mamand, Ala Talabani, Rıfat Abdullah who are among the most influential names of PUK in Kirkuk supported the departure of Karim from office.


Parting of ways for PUK

Having regard to all these problems, it seems possible for PUK to enter in a process of disintegration in the following period. Especially the decision of Barham Salih, who is shown as one of the most influential candidate leaders in PUK, to take part in the elections with a different structure will reduce the power that PUK has in KRG. In this sense, Goran’s performance in the following elections is also one of the determinative factors for PUK’s future. Although the leadership problems and weakening of Goran with the decease of Nawshirwan Mustafa strengthens the position of PUK in Sulaymaniyah, the balances of the domestic politics, notably the illegal referendum in KRG, shaped on the axis of KDP and Barzani might push PUK, which suffers from in-party disagreements and has difficulties in developing a common discourse, into a process of dissolution. 

At this point, PUK is likely to maintain its influence among the Kurdish population outside KRG, in provinces like Kirkuk, Diyalah and Salahaddin, and to shift, by this means, its focus towards its grassroots outside KRG. This might lead PUK, which adopts a relatively positive attitude towards KDP in the relations with Baghdad, to follow an Iraq-oriented policy instead of KRG domestic politics. Therefore, PUK will try to substitute for the power and support it has lost inside from outside and will be able to turn the reactions against Masoud Barzani in terms of the referendum into an advantage for itself. Indeed, Hero Talabani’s description of the unilaterally taken referendum decision as a “big mistake” can be interpreted as a signal of the beginning of a search in this direction.