Will the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan manage to overcome its current crisis?

EPC | 27 Jan 2020

The fourth general conference held by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was an important event for both Kurdistan and wider Iraq, as it was the first such conference held since the death of party leader Jalal Talabani. It also marked the end of the power-sharing arrangements agreed between the two ruling Kurdish parties in the 2005 strategic agreement. Party leaders felt pressed to hold the conference as soon as possible in order to respond to claims that the party was beginning to crumble, given the conflicts between its various wings, the lack of charismatic leadership capable of exercising control over the party’s internal affairs, and the efforts being made to change the course of the party to allow young leaders to play a greater role in upcoming events, known as the “Renewal” phase.

This paper examines the outcomes of the conference and their impact on the future of the party and its role in politics.   

Hard times for the PUK

In recent years, the PUK has lost a great deal of popular support in its areas of influence and its traditional strongholds in Al-Sulaimaniya governorate. It started with the defection of Deputy Secretary-General Nawshirwan Mustafa, who established the Gorran (Change) Movement in protest against the PUK’s abandonment of socialism and the spread of corruption among the party’s civil and military leaders. This move won over a large proportion of the PUK’s support base, and the Gorran Movement took second place in the 2009 regional parliamentary elections, winning half the leadership positions in the Kurdistan Regional Government, including speaker of Parliament. This led to disputes between party members, which were aggravated by Talabani’s absence from politics due to illness and the party’s inability to choose someone to take over his organizational role within the party. This inability was caused by the fact that the party leadership was split three ways:

1. Those who had fought in armed conflict, namely the first Deputy Secretary-General Kosrat Rasul Ali and his children. Rasul Ali has significant influence in Erbil governorate and among former Peshmerga fighters.

2. The Talabani family, namely the late President Jalal Talabani, his children and the children of his brother Sheikh Genki, who effectively control the parties intelligence and counterterrorism apparatus.

3. The technocrats, led by the second Deputy Secretary-General Barham Salih, who established the Coalition for Democracy and Justice.

Nonetheless, the PUK managed to regain its footing once the public lost trust in the Gorran Movement, having found it to be involved in the race for positions and benefits. The Movement’s tactical alliance with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) had also collapsed following a dispute over whether to renew Masoud Barzani’s mandate as President of the Kurdistan Region and whether to accept the new terms of reference for the president included in the draft constitution. As a result, the PUK was able to regain some standing as a partner in the strategic agreement, maintain its position within the federal government, and limit its losses within the Kurdistan Region’s power structures.

However, the KDP’s political isolation — the result of its political and economic decisions, in particular its decision to invest in oil and to prevent anyone else, including the Kurdistan Regional Government, from touching the revenues — fuelled conflict within the party between younger members and older Peshmerga fighters. This conflict became most apparent during the operation launched by Haider al-Abadi’s government in mid-October 2017 in response to the Kurdistan independence referendum with the aim of regaining control over Kirkuk governorate and the disputed areas. The PUK Peshmerga withdrew from those areas, and the federal forces faced no opposition. PUK party leaders were subsequently accused of “treason” by the other Kurdish parties, in particular the KDP, and various leaders within the party expressed their anger that Bafel Talabani, son of the late President, had seen fit to conclude a deal handing over Kirkuk governorate without first consulting the rest of the party, as an act of defiance against the KDP, which had a monopoly over oil revenues in the governorate. 

Although the PUK derailed the KDP’s attempt to seize the presidency in retaliation for the PUK’s role in Kirkuk, on the grounds that the KDP was the largest Kurdish bloc, having won 25 seats compared to the 18 held by its historic rival, these events led to the disintegration of the Kurdistani Alliance that had united the Kurdish parties within the Iraqi Parliament since 2003. It also marked the end of the 50/50 split maintained by the region’s successive governments since that year, in particular once the KDP tightened its grip on the region’s presidency and premiership.

After more than seven years of repeatedly postponing the general conference, as a result of internal problems within the PUK, conflicts with its rival partner, and the complexities of the political and security situation in Iraq following years of combating Islamic State, these recent developments appear to have been enough to push the warring factions within the PUK to temporarily set aside their differences in order to allow the conference to take place, with the aim of forming a leadership team to govern the party’s internal affairs and restructure the party to meet current needs.

Restructuring the party

Starting on December 21, 2019, the PUK general conference was held in Al-Sulaimaniya governorate over a period of three days, under the slogan of “Renewal”. This was the party’s fourth general conference since its establishment in 1975, and the first since the death of Jalal Talabani. During the conference, members approved a new structure for the party, as the old structure could no longer meet current requirements. The party urgently needed a new structure capable of overcoming its many problems, given the persistence of power-sharing arrangements and the failure of its leaders to adopt a unified stance on the challenges that Iraq as a whole, and the Kurdistan Region in particular, was facing.

Under the new structure, the Leadership Council has been split into two groups to form the 54-member Executive Council and the 67-member General Council, and tasked with overseeing the party leadership during the next stage. The General Council is responsible for monitoring the work of the Executive Council, and can replace any of its members who fail to perform their duties within the party’s institutions or offices.

The general conference also decided to elect the party’s Secretary-General from within the General Council and to select three members of the Executive Council to form the Supreme Authority for Party Management. Veteran politician Kosrat Rasul Ali was chosen as Secretary-General, and President Barham Salih, parliament speaker for the Kurdistan Regional Government Rewaz Fayaq, and Deputy Prime Minister of the region Qubad Talabani were appointed to the Supreme Authority for Party Management.

It was also agreed that all party decisions must be issued jointly by the Supreme Authority and the Secretariat of the General Council, although the Executive Council would have a veto over decisions issued by the Supreme Authority. Elections to the General Council would be based on party divisions and geographic distribution, according to number of votes that the party obtained in the national and regional parliamentary elections. The PUK also established a Council of Elders comprising current leaders who did not wish to stand for election to the Leadership Council and members of other councils.

Some observers believe that the results of the conference will transform the political map across the entire Kurdistan Region. In their view, the election of Kosrat Rasul Ali — who is close to the leader of the KDP and was a strong supporter of the Kurdistan independence referendum — as Secretary-General of the PUK will pave the way for new agreements on power-sharing within the governing bodies of the Kurdistan Region.

There are others, however, who feel that the only change brought by the restructuring of the party was to gather the various factions under the same roof and to end the formal vacuum in the party’s leadership. They do not expect to see any significant change in the party’s decision-making processes, particularly as the internal organizational maps for the two main Kurdish parties do not fully recognize the real balance of power, which owes its influence to the loyalty of the military and security institutions and the various circles of tribal and economic interests. The Talabani family holds the keys to most of these influences in Al-Sulaimaniya and Kirkuk governorates and in the disputed areas in Diyala and Salah al-Din. As for external factors, Iran, an historic ally of the PUK, has recently been building its relationship with the leader of the KDP, Masoud Barzani. This is likely to have encouraged the Talabani family to overcome their differences with Kosrat Rasul Ali and his team, who in recent times has identified increasingly and unprecedentedly with Barzani’s policies, in particular regarding the independence referendum and the events that followed. At the same time, the Iranians appear increasingly discomfited by the rise of Barham Salih, who is well known for his close ties to political decision-makers in the West. The fact that Iran’s declared allies have shifted the focus of their hostility from the leader of the KDP to the President of the Republic is a clear indicator of this discomfort. This hostility reached a peak with the outbreak of popular protests in early October 2019. Iran’s allies started by accusing Qais al-Khazali of involvement in a US plot to topple the government. They later suggested that Al-Sulaimaniya had become a hub for planning the spread of chaos throughout the country. Even later, they demanded that the President should be prosecuted and removed from his position for committing perjury and violating the constitution, owing to his refusal to appoint the Construction Coalition’s candidate to the role of prime minister.

Future benefits

Having decided on its new leadership, the PUK finds itself at an important juncture, particularly given the current conversations about amending the federal Constitution and the Elections Act and holding early parliamentary elections, which would topple nearly all the carefully constructed equations enabling the party to hold on to the federal presidency, which gave the PUK additional moral weight compared with its rivals, the KDP. Furthermore, the KDP have raised a number of issues that the PUK must take into account if it is to improve its standing in the Kurdish and Iraqi political arenas, including the following:

1. The PUK must reaffirm its political and intellectual foundations as a socialist movement that seeks to achieve social justice and equality between citizens through democracy, both in the Kurdistan Region and in Iraq. It must also clarify its mechanisms for implementing this socialist approach in a way that will narrow the class divides between the influential minority who live a life of obscene wealth and the majority who are battling to secure their livelihoods. It is through this message that the PUK will be able to reach the other components of Iraqi society, thereby shielding itself from any negative repercussions that the new elections law may have on its chances of electoral success. In principle, under the new law, each district will serve as a single constituency. If no procedural amendments are made, this new setup will likely lead to a reduction in the number of seats held by the PUK in multi-ethnic Kirkuk.

2. The PUK needs to define the tasks for which each level of its organizational structure is responsible, and to allow fresh young faces to replace the cadres who have long overseen the organization of the party, who were involved in the conflicts over positions and benefits and who are popularly accused of corruption and abuse of influence for personal gain.

3. It must send the message to the international powers that the party is capable of participating in joint action to combat terrorist organizations in shared border areas between Al-Sulaimaniya and Halabjah and with Iran, which is one of the most important hives of terrorist activity and recruitment; Halabjah governorate recorded one of the highest rates of recruitment to Islamic State outside the organization’s areas of control.

4. The PUK must be willing to confront the wider changes that are occurring in Iraq, where the situation is more fluid than ever before, given the escalating conflict between Shia protesters and religious authorities in Najaf and between government institutions dominated by pro-Tehran State factions, which appear to have placed the PUK at the top of their list of enemies. The situation also threatens to jeopardize relations with the United States, its future military presence in Iraq, and the possibility of US troops being stationed in the region, if the Iraqi government insists on expelling US forces in line with Shia demands. This will have implications on the unity of the country, given the emergence of demands for the formation of new federal regions, emanating in particular from Sunni political forces.

5. The PUK needs to find a compromise with the other Kurdish parties to enable them to rebuild the Kurdish front, which was completely destroyed following the legislative elections of May 2018, in order to respond to the new demands made by recent waves of popular protest. Top of the list is the demand for the reform of the political system and the amendment of the Constitution, which gives the Kurdistan Regional Government powers beyond those seen in any other federal State. This has been one of the main causes of popular discontent in central and southern Iraq, where protesters see the partnership between the federal government and the Kurdistan Regional Government as entirely one-sided, in which Kurdistan is able to enjoy all its rights without being held to any obligations.

Possible scenarios for the future of the PUK

Scenario 1: The conference achieves a quantum leap in the party’s general level of performance

In this scenario, the PUK general conference helps the various wings of the party reach a shared vision that satisfies all their basic concerns. This helps consolidate the ranks of the party’s popular support base, and allows it to turn a new page in its institutional work. Newly elected Secretary-General Kosrat Rasul Ali echoed these ideas in his speech at the opening of the conference: “I call on all groups to turn a new page in their political life. The future of the PUK is in your hands. Each of us complements the other, and none of us is more patriotic than the other.” A number of factors support the scenario, in particular:

1. The party’s various wings need to reach a comprehensive agreement to overcome their differences, thereby creating the right atmosphere to allow the PUK to return to its central role in both Kurdish and Iraqi politics. The PUK is one of the only parties to have a strong popular support base. It is supported by network of regional and international relations, and it has strong military, security, and economic support.

2. The party wants to limit the losses that it suffered within the regional governing institutions as a result of its disintegration. It lost both its standing as the equal partner of the KDP and its place within the decision-making centers of the Kurdish capital, especially once the Barzani family took control of the presidency and premiership.

3. The PUK has regained standing among its popular support base in Al-Sulaimaniya, where it originally lost much of its support to emerging parties that lacked many of the sources of power that it possessed.

4. The declining popularity of the Gorran Movement following the death of its leader Nishirwan Mustafa, the failure of the New Generation Movement to present a serious challenge, and the decline in popularity of Islamic parties and groups in Al-Sulaimaniya serve as further incentives for the PUK to gather its ranks and fill the newly created void.

Scenario 2: The conference fails to produce any real change (most likely)

This scenario is based on a number of factors, primarily:

1. It will be difficult to transform the results produced by the conference into a solution to the problems of such an elitist party, which long relied on the personality and sophistication of its former leader, Jalal Talabani, who was famous for his ability to manipulate and bring together diverse opinions. Kosrat Rasul Ali does not seem to be capable of filling the void left by Talabani, in particular given that he sides with Masoud Barzani’s vision regarding relations with Baghdad.

2. No new faces were presented at the conference, with the PUK once again rotating through the same well-known personalities. The concept of allowing young new figures to take the initiative does not appear to sit comfortably alongside the influence and interests of the traditional leaders, who lean on their record of political and military struggle within the party.

3. The real power is concentrated in the hands of the Talabani family: Bafel Talabani controls the party’s Peshmerga intelligence apparatus, and Lahur Sheikh Genki controls the antiterrorism agencies in Al-Sulaimaniya. Consequently, they also control the distribution of economic resources, including investments, trade, procurement, and contracts for oil extraction, refining, and trade throughout Iranian territory.

4. Like other parties in Iraq, the PUK has become a collective of clientelist groups that cannot be removed without bringing about structural collapse, in particular as most of the party’s leaders have overlapping interests with their historic rivals from the KDP, which has gained almost complete control over the distribution of public resources throughout the Kurdistan Region and which controls the main oil trade route towards Turkey.


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