A Power-Sharing Deal to end Kurdistan's Active Opposition

A Power-Sharing Deal to end Kurdistan's Active Opposition
Leaders of Gorran and the KDP are signing their government formation agreement. Photo Credit: Ibrahim Fatah in Kurdistan 24
:: PM:10:49:08/03/2019 ‌

Currently, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is undergoing several political, economic, and administrative changes. These instability does not take place just within the ruling parties. It is rather transforming the opposition parties that used to fight for social justice and better governance over the past 10 years, mainly the Gorran (Change) Movement.  


Karzan A. Mahmood
is political analyst in ICPAR and lecturer in Komar University of Science and Technology. His research focus is on Kurdish internal politics in Iraq. He holds MSc from Swansea University.

Today, most the of the former opposition parties in the Kurdish region are trying to join traditional ruling parties to get their piece of the government formation cake being baked by Masud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democrats' Party (KDP). In this game, the parties will win some pieces of the cake, but Kurdistan will lose an active opposition that is supposed to hold the upcoming government accountable to the public.
This article analyzes aspects of the Kurdish opposition parties’ race to join the KRI’s ruling parties in a complicated power sharing deal, thanks to which the region has lost its active opposition parties. 
Since the first session of the Kurdistan Parliament in 1992, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the KDP have run the region based on a power-sharing deal (50% for each). The deal ended with the civil war that ran from 1994 to 1998, and later they split the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in two: the KDP governed Erbil and Duhok (locally called the Yellow Zone), and the PUK had power in Sulaymaniah and part of Erbil’s countryside (locally called the Green Zone).

The Birth of Strong Opposition

Until 2009, the ruling parties won a majority of Kurdish votes in all regional and national elections, so they could form governments unchallenged. The emergence of the Gorran Movement in 2009 changed this political map after it won 25 seats (of 111) the first time it fielded candidates. This change relegated the PUK to third place, but Gorran could not bring down the KDP.
Gorran remained a strong opposition party for the entire four years of Kurdistan parliament’s term. It lined up with the Islamic Group of Kurdistan (IGK) and the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), playing the role of first active parliamentarian opposition to fight the region’s widespread corruption, mismanagement, and poor governance. Now, only KIU, which won five seats out of 111, exists as an opposition party. 
Before these developments, several leftist and Islamic political organizations worked in opposition to the KDP and PUK, but they did not win any seats in the previous elections. Their popular support was minor, and they could not affect the way the ruling parties governed the region. 

The Second Phase of Opposition Political Life: Semi-opposition

Gorran’s second parliamentary election result (won 24 seats) brought it new power. The party’s leaders believed that they could achieve their goals and reform the KRG’s institutions in a power-sharing deal with the ruling parties. So, in 2014 they brokered a deal with the KDP to form a coalition government.
The Gorran-KDP agreement lasted until 2015. But disputes over former Kurdistan president Masud Barzani’s term and the political system of the region led KDP forces to block Gorran’s ministers and Kurdistan’s parliament speaker from their offices in Erbil, which terminated the deal.
Again, Gorran came back to play its opposition role, but it never regained the momentum it had before 2014. In the last two Iraqi and Kurdish parliamentarian elections, Gorran’s votes decreased by half. Several key leaders of the party stopped working in the organization, and many mid-level cadres and officials left it. 
Gorran’s activists and members blamed various factors for the bad election results, including widespread fraud by the ruling parties, the organization’s leadership, and their performance in the KRG’s 8th cabinet. 

Back to another Power-Sharing Deal

In February 2019, Gorran brokered yet another power-sharing deal with the KDP, under which it will get four ministries and dozens of lower-rank positions in the upcoming KRG cabinet. Top leaders of the organization are hoping to implement their previous reform agendas in this cabinet, but their experience with the KDP does not encourage this optimism.
It is clear what Gorran gained in its new partnership with the KDP, but it is not clear how they can sustain their deal in the face of expected challenges.
The power-sharing deal has already outraged many members of Gorran, especially those who want to continue fighting corruption and injustice in the region, apart from deals with the KDP and the PUK. Some of these members have left the organization in the past few weeks.

More Challenges Ahead 

The Gorran-KDP deal ended the KRI’s active opposition role and struggle for better governance, more accountability, and basic institutional reform. There is no other strong opposition party that can link people’s demands on the street with a concrete political agenda in parliament. So, the KRI has lost its active opposition, but it is still not clear what Gorran will gain from this deal given its bad experience in previous deals with the KDP.
On the other hand, it is hard to believe that the PUK would let a KDP-Gorran deal go as easily as optimists are expecting due to its intertwined economic interests with the KDP and the military forces that control the Green Zone. The PUK, which signed its own power-sharing deal with the KDP in early March, might not want to have a strong partner in its controlled areas to share political, economic and administrative decisions. 
In Kurdistan as well as Iraq, whoever has weapons and armed forces can impose their will and implement policies and laws based on their own interpretations. Given this bitter reality, the Gorran movement will never be a full partner with the KDP and PUK, which have their own armed forces and weapons. 
Gorran’s weak position is not a result of lack of military forces, but of its decreasing popularity. In the past two elections, its votes have decreased by more than 50 percent.

Institutional Reform, a Win-Win Game that Benefits Everyone 

It is the perfect time for a win-win game in which all the three major players -- the KDP, PUK, and Gorran -- can gain some pieces of the cake. The KDP and Gorran leaders have stated that their initial goals are to reform the KRG’s governing institutions and fight corruption. Those goals are similar to what PUKs leaders are claiming.
Neither institutional reform nor fighting corruption is that easy, but at least they could provide a common ground for designing such a win-win situation. Some of the reform steps may save Gorran from future erosion that its enemies want to see. For the KDP and the PUK, a comprehensive reform plan will help reinforce their achievements in the KRG and avoid more chaos in the future.
Moreover, without such a power-sharing deal, it is hard for Gorran to implement its reform plans while its popularity is decreasing. In addition, many of Gorran’s reformist demands over the past 10 years have now become acceptable to the KDP. Several KDP leaders have stated that the 9th cabinet would be a great opportunity for launching a serious reform plan.  
This cabinet seems to be a place where all three parties want to achieve their reformist goals. However, “The devil is in the details.” It is still not clear what the KDP means by “reform,” or if it is close to what it means to Gorran. 
Besides, any institutional reform will antagonize many influential corrupt figures in the ruling parties and in KRG institutions. All three political partners (the KDP, PUK, and Gorran) together can confront these corrupt figures, but it is not going to be an easy battle. The corrupt figures have their own mafias, media, and gigantic companies. They are also very well organized and have lobbies within all decision-making circles.
Therefore, after Gorran lost its voters and Kurdistan lost its active opposition, institutional reform is the only method whereby the players can make some gains. This reform is expected to make state institutions respect human rights, preserve the rule of law, and improve public accountability. Gorran could capitalize on these gains to regain its voters, and the ruling parties also can claim it an achievement for themselves.