After the election of the Iraqi parliament speaker Mohamed al-Halbusi, the people’s representatives will have to select the president of the republic who will ask the largest political bloc to present the full cabinet within 15 days according to the Iraqi constitution.
Since 2005, there has been a political tradition in which the positions of parliament speaker, the presidency, and the premiership are distributed among political parties based on an ethno-sectarian quota. Consequently, the Kurds run the presidency, the Sunnis administer the parliament, and the Shia appoint the prime minister. This package of posts has always been identified through political consensus. This time however, the situation is more complicated than before due to the outcomes of the May 12 election that did not give any party any significant leverage over others because of the relatively close number of seats.
The ball is now in the court of the Kurds. The Kurds must come to the Iraqi parliament as a united bloc and present one candidate, who needs two thirds of the votes. However, the Kurds are presently divided and have a fierce competition going on between the mover of the political spoils of the election. The two biggest parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are currently facing each other off in order to nominate the president.
Since the liberation of Iraq from the Ba’ath regime in 2003, the Kurds have agreed to grant the KDP the presidency of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and some other sovereign ministries in the federal government, while the PUK is given the presidency of Iraq and the right to manage the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The PUK has now nominated Mr. Barham Salih for the presidency of Iraq, with the assurance that there is an Iranian-American acceptance of their candidate. Party members say that he has returned to the PUK based on the request of the Iranians. They also confirm that the visit of Brett McGurk, the American presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to defeat Daesh, to the PUK leaders in Sulaymaniyah city came to give the green light to Mr. Salih’s nomination.
The KDP is momentarily seeking to change the equation for dividing the Kurdish posts. Back in 2017, the post of the president of the Kurdistan Region was abolished. Furthermore, they got 26 parliamentary seats while the PUK has only gained 16 in the recent election. According to the KDP, this changes the equation, and their leaders are stating that they now have the right to decide who will be the president of Iraq and who will be the governor of Kirkuk. Hence, they rejected Mr. Salih’s nomination and submitted their own candidate for the Iraqi presidency: Mr. Fuad Hussien. The PUK on the other hand insists that all Kurds must remain faithful to the agreements of 2005, and it considers the KDP’s calls as a bloodless coup against the PUK’s interests, and contra to Kurdish unity.
The Shi’i blocs of Sa’iroon and al-Fatih have the power to determine the fate of the presidency. Both blocs tend to favor any nominee who did not support the Kurdish referendum on independence held in September 2017, welcomed the peaceful return of the federal forces to Kirkuk, is willing to execute the constitution, and who will protect the unity of Iraq. All these qualities are available in the nominee of the PUK, Barham Salih, who had been the prime minister of Kurdistan region 2001-2004, and served as Iraq’s deputy prime minister in 2006. One month after the referendum, Mr. Salih stated: “The decision (of the referendum) was taken by one person, Massoud Barzani, but was provoked by several corrupt politicians in order to preserve their money and pursue their theft, while allowing the lack of economic stability and international allies worthy of trust.”
The KDP is well aware of the truth mentioned above. Therefore, the prime minister of Kurdistan Region Nechirvan Barzani paid a visit to Baghdad and Najaf to persuade the Shi’i leaders to postpone the vote on the Kurdish nominees until after the Kurdistan election that will be held on September 30. Constitutionally, it is an acceptable request as the deadline for selecting the president of the state will be on October 2, according to Article 72/ Second/ B of the Iraqi constitution.
The Shi’i parties however do not like to be part of inter-Kurdish disputes. While they prefer Mr. Salih, they understand that if they lose their relations with the KDP, they would face a real problem with a US-backed party that is playing an active role in Kurdish politics. Thus, they chose to be neutral in their position. They gave Kurdish sides an opportunity to solve their problems in their region, and encouraged them to agree on only one nominee who can be accepted by the other political players. Implicitly, they pointed out to Barzani that the Kurds must strengthen Barham Salih’s chances in this political bargain, or at least suggest another nominee who has the same characteristics as Salih. Therefore, the parliamentary session of September 25 did not include the vote on the post of Iraq’s presidency.
In sum, the Shi’i forces will not uphold the next Iraqi president if he was part of the team that had called for the Kurdish separation from Iraq. Therefore, the KDP has no choice but to negotiate with the PUK in order to present a nationalistic, moderate, and non-racist politician as nominee for president. Otherwise, the Kurdish parties, especially the KDP, will be in a real stalemate. The alternative will be the election of an independent Kurdish nominee, such as Mrs. Srwa Abdul-Wahid, who is well qualified for the post and close to the Shia in terms of political views.
Diyari Salih is an Iraqi academic with a PhD in Political Geography, Baghdad and a Post-Doctorate in International Relations, Warsaw,