The New President and Political Balance in Iraq

Almost three months after the April 2014 parliamentarian elections, the Iraqi Parliament elected a new president on 24 July 2014. Although 93 people had declared their candidacy, only four of them participated in the first round, and before the voting, Faik Sheikh Ali, one of the candidates, announced that he would not participate. Thus, the first round took place between Hanan Fetlawi from the State of Law Coalition, independent candidate Hussein El Moussawi, and Fouad Massoum from PUK. In the first round, none of the candidates were able to obtain the necessary two-thirds majority from 275 parliamentarians to avoid a runoff. After receiving 37 votes in the first round, Hanan Fetlawi withdrew from the second round, and thus, it took place between El Moussawi and Massoum. With 211 votes out of 269, Fouad Massoum was elected as the new president of Iraq. Also, 17 parliamentarians voted for Hussein El Moussawi. A new process has begun with the election of the new president. The president must give the task to form a government to the person he deems responsible. Therefore, one can say that a new political bargaining has begun.

Looking at the post-2003 Iraqi politics, it is possible to see that political bargaining and reconciliations are the main drivers of political process. Iraq’s government formation process and political power sharing are designated by agreements and compromises between political groups. Fouad Massoum’s election process as the president seems to occur as a product of the political bargaining and reconciliation. In this context, Massoum’s election can be viewed in terms of Iraq’s political balance, Kurdish domestic politics, and regional dimensions.

In terms of Iraqi domestic politics, the holding of presidential election, despite operations against ISIS, can be seen as a reflection of the effort to keep Iraq united. Debates about partition scenarios that began after ISIS operations have been taken to a very limited level with the election. However, this situation does not mean that the scenarios for partition went away; new political and security crises will bring to surface these scenarios again in the near future. In addition to Massoum’s presidency, Selim Cuburi’s election as the speaker of parliament indicates that a new political balance has been formed. Since 2003, the parliament speaker has been Sunni, the prime minister has been Shia, and the president has been Kurdish. These positions are now formed the same way after the 2014 elections as well. The protection of the framework without a written agreement shows that it became a custom. Sunni groups that had wanted the presidency made it clear that they comply with this custom. Moreover, Fouad Massoum’s personal traits also made him a preferable figure. Massoum, who has a liberal mindset, appears as someone who can intervene to protect the balance between groups. His experience as Interim Governing Council President and Parliament Speaker indicates that he is intimately familiar with the system. Furthermore, with his experience as a professor at the Basra University, Massoum knows and understands the Shia, the main driving force of the system owing to their high population rate. Within this context, Massoum can play a significant role for the coherence and reconciliation between different groups.

On the other hand, Massoum’s presidency brought to surface the political dynamics between Kurdish groups. First of all, after it became certain that the new president would be a Kurd, the candidate selection process essentially focused on PUK. It is possible to state that other Kurdish parties were not opposed to giving that authority to PUK. Nonetheless, it is obvious that the debates on leadership in PUK affected the candidate selection process. Considering the political polarization in PUK, two actors’ potential candidacy, Barham Saleh and Necmettin Kerim, has been one of the hot topics behind the scenes. However, other Kurdish parties’ insistence on a Kurdish candidate put PUK in difficult situation. Furthermore, both Saleh’s and Kerim’s reluctance to withdraw disrupted the balance within PUK. Hence, despite his rejection by PUK’s politburo, Kerim did not withdraw from candidacy until the last minute. He withdrew only after the ultimatum of dismissal by PUK authorities. On the other hand, it is seen that Barham Saleh was also not accepted by other Kurdish parties. For this reason, PUK presented two candidates and Kurdish lawmakers voted for them. Among 55 Kurdish lawmakers, 30 voted for Massoum, 23 voted for Saleh and two abstained, thus Massoum became the Kurds’ presidential candidate. Looking at the voting rates, it is possible to say that two candidates split the vote. It can be argued that some members of PUK did not support Saleh due to the polarization within the party. Additionally, Massoum’s longstanding friendship with Talabani since childhood and his impartial attitude and support for Talabani’s wife Hero Talabani during Talabani’s sickness put him ahead in the race. Some also argue that Talabani’s return to Iraq before presidential elections gave Massoum a boost in the race. Furthermore, a situation in which Saleh or Kerim, whose names are uttered in PUK’s leadership struggle in post-Talabani era, got elected as Iraqi President would have been highly disturbing for the Talabani family since they might appear as Talabani’s successor. Therefore, at the end of the process, Massoum’s election as the president helped strengthen the Talabani family’s position within PUK.

Turkey congratulation of Massoum as the first country demonstrates that it deeply values a united Iraq. This congratulation is also important in terms of the regional support that Massoum will receive. It is known that Massoum has good relations with Iran. Additionally, although he was supported less than Saleh by the United States, his work experience in the post 2003 governments can be seen as a redeeming quality for him. In this context, Massoum’s presidency is perhaps a reflection of coherence in terms of Kurdish internal politics, Iraqi political balance, and regional dimensions. However, it is obvious that a complex process lies ahead in Iraq’s near future. ISIS’s operations in the country, bargains on government formation process, Shia’s attitude towards Maliki’s insistence on reelection, Sunni Arabs’ position against ISIS, and Kurds’ seriousness for independence will be the main factors to affect the Iraqi reconciliation process in the future.