For the KRG, this election thus confirms the clear ascendancy of the KDP over the PUK. Two and a half years after Masoud Barzani's referendum on independence, it confirms the success of the former leader's strategy. However, this victory was not guaranteed: although more than 90% of the Kurds voted for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2017, the referendum resulted in the loss of Kurdish control over the oil town of Kirkuk, voluntarily abandoned by the PUK. It was also criticized in a joint denunciation by Ankara, Tehran and Baghdad (as well as Westerners to a lesser extent) as an initiative that could awaken Kurdish independence and further destabilize the region.
From Erbil to Baghdad: the new horizon of the Kurdish political struggle
However, it is no longer exclusively on a regional scale that Kurdish political antagonisms are being played out in Iraq today. KDP and PUK are fighting for maximum influence in Baghdad, where political forces are struggling to recompose themselves after the victory over Daech. The presidential office of Iraq, traditionally held by a Kurdish following the custom of ethnico-confessional distribution of representatives, had already been at the centre of strong opposition between KDP and PUK in 2018. Masoud Barzani had indeed tried to impose someone from the KDP, despite the tacit agreement that had held so far for a member of the PUK to occupy this position, in exchange for the leadership of the KRG given to the KDP. It was finally Bahram Salih, a historical member of the UPK, who took over the position. It took all of the diplomacy of Prime Minister Mahdi, Masoud Barzani's personal friend, to get him to accept the appointment.
This struggle for power in Baghdad is now being translated into action at the ministerial level. The Prime Minister has already appointed two Kurdish KDP ministers for finance (Fouad Hussein) and housing (Bangin Rekani). The very strategic and regalian ministry of Justice must also be held by a Kurdish, and is the subject of heated negotiations between the two parties. The Kurdish factor thus blocks Iraqi policy, and contributes to the Prime Minister's inability to complete his government, in which the essential portfolios of Interior and Defence also remain vacant.
Iraqi Kurdistan on a razor’s edge
What can we expect, in this context, from the new Iraqi Kurdish presidency? The future presidential management of the KDP-PUK inter-party rivalry may affect the relationship with the Iranian neighbour. Concerned about a possible awakening of Iranian Kurdish independence, Tehran had largely relied on the PUK to absorb the independence referendum. PUK’s interest was indeed to see Masoud Barzani’s initiative to embody Kurdish nationalism fail. Beyond this ad hoc alliance, Iran is culturally closer to the Kurds of the Suleymaniye region (the PUK's historic headquarters) than to Erbil and Dohuk, where the KDP is omnipresent. However, Iran's influence in Iraqi Kurdistan makes it necessary for KRG leaders and Iran to minimally cooperate.