The Kurdish Parties and the Iraqi Protest Movement

EPC | 07 Jan 2020

Political leaders in the Kurdistan Region are highly concerned by the direction that the Iraqi protest movement has taken, not only because of the possibility that the protests may spread to the region, where living conditions are no different from those in the central and southern governorates, but also because of the possible changes to the Iraqi political system that could have an impact on the status of the region and threaten the foundations of its undeclared independence from the federal government.

Position of the Kurdistan Region regarding the protests

When protests broke out in central and southern Iraq in October 2019, the Kurdish leaders initially remained silent. Their inner circles waited in anticipation, particularly once protesters began to use slogans condemning the national and sectarian quota-based composition of the governing system. Eventually, in a statement delivered by the President of the Kurdistan Region, the Kurdish leaders recognized the legitimacy of the popular demands for general political and economic reform, provided that such reform did not affect the current government structure. They also reaffirmed their support for Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi and their belief that he bore no responsibility for the factors that kickstarted the protests. Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, stated that: “We believe that the protests are not born of modern grievances, but rather are the result of the accumulated failures of the past 15 years.” During a meeting with Ayad Allawi, leader of the Iraqi National Alliance, held on October 8, 2019, Barzani reaffirmed his support for Mahdi’s government and his rejection of any change to the political process made outside the framework of the Constitution and the democratic mechanisms. During a meeting with United States Senator Tammy Baldwin, the Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region, Masrour Barzani, adopted the same position, stating that: “Peaceful protest is a constitutional right, but it is in no one’s interest to allow the situation to escalate.”

The differences in the Kurdish leaders’ positions appear to stem from two reasons: First, the Kurdish leaders are fearful that the protests seen in the central and southern governorates will spread to the Kurdistan Region. In response, the Kurdish security forces (“Asayish”) have banned popular strikes within Erbil aimed at condemning violence and repression or expressing solidarity with the legitimate rights of protesters. Second, Kurdish leaders remain opposed to any attempt to make any general structural changes that could affect the gains made by the Kurdistan Region. These two factors can be explained in greater detail:

  1. Although the Kurdish leaders believe that the protests are mainly targeted at the dominant political powers in Baghdad, in particular Shia groups, they are also aware that the economic and living conditions that have driven the people onto the streets in the central and southern governorates are no different to those experienced in the Kurdistan Region. Conversely, Shaswar Abdulwahid, head of the New Generation Movement, has stated that he would support a protest movement within Kurdistan if the Kurdish leaders do nothing to improve living conditions in the region or implement necessary reforms to the existing system.
  2. Kurdish leaders are afraid that Arab protests in Iraq will have a significant influence on Baghdad’s policies towards Erbil, undermining the partial deals that have governed relations between the two sides since 2003 and that gave the region confederate powers in the guise of federal powers. This situation has long provoked the ire of the Iraqi public in the central and southern governorates, who believe that it is unfair to give the region a portion of public revenues when the Kurdish Government refuses to contribute to the public budget.
  3. Kurdish leaders are attempting to preserve the policies favoring the region that were adopted by Adel Abdul Mahdi, who is a long-standing friend of the Kurds. Within a year of taking power, Mahdi proved himself to be the best prime minister in the interests of the region, which has been reflected in a number of decisions. In particular, Mahdi chose to ignore Erbil’s violation of the Federal Budget Act, which provides that Baghdad will pay the salaries of the more than one million public employees in the region in exchange for Erbil sending 250,000 barrels of oil per day to the Iraqi national Oil Marketing Company (SOMO).
  4. It is in the interest of the Kurdish leaders to prevent protesters achieving any real change in the structure and mechanisms of the political system. In particular, they are keen to prevent the transition from a parliamentary system to a presidential system, as such a change would liberate the chief executive from the constraints imposed by the need to achieve consensus between social components and ensure a national–sectarian balance in governance, thereby undermining the region’s gains, which have come to form part of a practice that goes beyond constitutional principles.

Position regarding the next government

The strong support of the Kurdish parties for Mahdi’s government was not enough to protect it from the views of the religious authorities in Najaf, which lifted the lid on Mahdi’s activities at the same moment that Shia forces loyal to Iran decided to take action to deflect popular anger, while simultaneously distracting protesters with their proposals for candidates to fill government positions. While the Kurds agreed with the political blocs to accept Mahdi’s resignation, they imposed a number of conditions on the selection of the next prime minister, including the following:

  1. The next prime minister must be someone who will respect the balance between Baghdad and Erbil and who is acceptable to all segments of Iraqi society.
  2. The next government must respect the agreements signed by Mahdi’s government and must prevent the deterioration in relations between Baghdad and Erbil, especially as angry street protests serve as further incentive for the Kurdistan Region to abandon its obligations towards the Iraqi State.
  3. The next prime minister must not be associated with a political party, in particular given the region’s bitter experience of the previous two prime ministers from the Islamic Dawa Party (Nouri al-Maliki and Haider al-Abadi), who relied on their strong party and their large parliamentary bloc, whose members could agree on nothing except the desire to undermine the status of the Kurdistan Region.

As the political balance has tipped on its head, it has presented Kurdish leaders with a number of pressing concerns. Erbil is no longer a priority on the political scene, as the political parties and parliamentary blocs are focusing instead on finding solutions to quell the popular protest movement, which has become a new weight on the scales of political power. The Kurdish Government is well aware of this, having felt the influence of the movement through the changes in the discourse and actions of the caretaker government. Before the protests began, delegations from Baghdad and Erbil would meet regularly — almost weekly — in pursuit of greater rapprochement and a solution to their disputes; now, however, such meetings are few and far between, with some even being postponed as a result of the momentum of the protest movement. There is a feeling in Kurdistan that the change in government will lead to the marginalization of their needs and their role in government, particularly as the future prime minister is expected to focus on resolving the problems of the central and southern governorates and meeting protesters’ demands as a show of goodwill. This will inevitably mean that efforts to resolve Erbil’s outstanding issues — primarily those related to salaries, oil exports, and disputed territories — will be placed on the backburner.

Elections law and the Kurdish veto

On December 5, 2019, the Iraqi Council of Representatives approved the High Electoral Commission Act, to the Kurds’ satisfaction. The Act provides that nine leaders must be selected by a lottery to sit on the Board of Commissioners, two of whom must be selected by the Judicial Council of the Kurdistan Region. Activists in the protest movement expressed dissatisfaction with the new law, on the grounds that it introduced a new type of quota system by stipulating that geographic distribution must be taken into account in the selection of judges, as reflected in the quota allocated to the Kurds.

With regard to protesters’ second demand — that early elections be held — the Kurdish parties have voiced no opposition, as they have a strong support base in their areas of influence. For elections to be held, however, the Kurdish parties have specified that they must be approved by a majority of political parties in the Council of Representatives. The real conflict revolves around the Elections Act, which was presented to the Council of Representatives but could not be passed by the political blocs, owing to their conflicting views on numerous articles.

The Kurdish parties’ position on the controversial elements of the new law is as follows:

  1. Constituencies: The Kurdish powers support the concept of multiple constituencies, as the use of a single constituency would, according to Kurdish researcher Hoshyar Malo, “damage Kurdish parties, whose influence is considered to be confined to the disputed areas and regions”. While the Kurdish powers are in favor of counting each governorate as an electoral district, agreement has still not been reached on the matter, as other political forces — primarily the Saeroun alliance, under the leadership of Muqtada al-Sadr — want each single judiciary within a governorate to become an electoral district.
  2. Voting mechanism and vote counting: Under the current electoral law, votes are counted based on party lists, and each governorate is considered a single electoral district, which means that candidates who received the fewest votes on a list benefit from the excess votes received by colleagues who won more votes (Sainte-Laguë method). The new bill presented to the Council of Representatives is based on a mixed system combining individual voting (multiple districts) and party lists (single district). Protesters have rejected the new law and have called for elections to be held on the basis of direct individual voting, using a system based entirely on multiple districts. While the Saeroun alliance supports this demand, the main Kurdish parties are opposed to a system based entirely on individual voting, instead favoring a system that is based half on party lists and half on individual candidates.
  3. Counting and sorting: While the two main Kurdish parties — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party — have no preference as to whether votes are counted and sorted manually or electronically, the Taghyeer Movement and the smaller Kurdish parties have voiced their opposition to electronic counting and sorting. A representative of the Movement has warned against resorting to “the law of electronic counting and sorting, the re-adoption of which will steal votes from the Iraqi people.”

Oil Issue and Compromises after the Government’s Resignation

It is possible that the disputes between the Kurdistan Region and the federal government will not re-erupt until after the government has resigned, thanks to the initial agreements that were put on the table before Mahdi’s resignation, which have received the tacit support of Iranian allies in the Fatah Alliance. In addition, the Kurdish parties remain a key partner in the political process and are united with the Shia and Sunni parties in the face of public anger. It is possible, however, that such disputes will return to the forefront if the protesters’ demand for an independent Prime Minister is met. Any such Prime Minister will seek to achieve rapid progress in areas that do not require significant funds or time to resolve, in particular ensuring fair treatment for all citizens regardless of their national or sectarian background.

Kurdish leaders will oppose any attempt to reduce the benefits enjoyed by the region or review the agreements made before the protests started. Negotiations on the oil agreement had reached the advanced stages before the protests forced parliament to postpone its ratification of the agreement. On December 12, 2019, the Ministry of Oil issued a statement confirming that the federal government had signed the final version of the new agreement with the Kurdish government. The agreement stipulated that: “the Kurdish government must send 250,000 barrels of oil per day to SOMO, as of next year, for a period of six years, provided that the production ceiling for crude oil is 450,000 barrels per day, as this affects Iraq's share in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). In return, Baghdad is obligated to pay the monthly salaries of public employees in the region and to provide the region with 13% of its annual budget for future years.”

This sudden announcement set the battle lines along which members of parliament would clash in their nominations for the new Prime Minister. It also set out the red lines that Kurdish allies among Shia forces loyal to Iran must not cross, at a time when the Shia population has voiced unprecedented anger at those forces’ willingness to sacrifice the country’s interests to benefit Iranian aspirations of dominance in the region.


Iran is undergoing an important stage in its history. The Kurds view protesters’ demands for political reform with concern, as they fear that any change in the political system may undermine the gains made by the Kurdistan Region. Although the Kurdish powers have a “practical” veto over any amendments to the Constitution or the Elections Act that may affect the jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Region, they cannot afford to ignore the potential consequences for areas in which they remain in dispute with Baghdad, such as on issues of oil, budgets, and the disputed areas, in the event that a new political class responsive to protesters’ demands and aspirations takes power in Baghdad. The challenge for the Kurds lies in maintaining a balance between allowing political reform to take place and, at the same time, protecting the interests of the Kurdistan Region.


Editor's Note: Original version edited on December 18, 2019.


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