Saad Salim for Unsplush

KDP, PUK Relations Head for Further Clashes

On the eve of the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr, a customary time for extending an olive branch, salary disbursement issues emerged as the latest battleground for disputes between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

Official and semi-official PUK media outlets claimed that Peshmerga forces affiliated with their party faced discrimination in receiving pensions in Erbil and Duhok provinces. Additionally, Sulaymaniyah province experienced a cash shortage, preventing timely payments before the holiday, when banks and shops throughout the Kurdistan Region would mostly be closed for the five-day public holiday.

In Erbil, at least four journalists were prevented from covering reports at Hamrin Bank, which faced issues with paying PUK-affiliated Peshmerga Forces. KDP-affiliated Security Forces in Erbil “humiliated” the reporters, according to Sharpress and Zoom News reporters Hezhar Anwar and Ayub Warti, who spoke with NRT English.

NRT Kurdish journalist Hersh Qadir was among those prevented from covering the story and was briefly detained by security forces in Erbil. Qadir says the local militarized police force in the city, known as Zeravani, took him inside the bank to talk with officials, who then warned against reporting near the bank and threatened equipment seizure.

Mohammed Mullah Hassan, Director of Hamrin Bank in Erbil, was later quoted by local media, stating that the problem of pensioners’ salaries in the city had been resolved. He asked pensioners to visit the bank to collect their salaries. The KRG Finance Ministry and the Sulaymaniyah branch of the General Directorate of the Central Bank of the Kurdistan Region issued their own conflicting statements, adding to the confusion.

Later, KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani issued a statement warning against “obstructing the salary distribution process anywhere in the Kurdistan Region.” He went on to say: “People’s salaries and livelihoods should not be entangled with political conflicts and issues. The country’s revenue must serve our citizens, and anyone who disrupts this process must be held accountable to the people and the law.”

This highlights the dire political situation in the Kurdistan Region, where relations between the KDP and PUK have not been this poor for years.

House of Cards

When former NRT English journalist Winthrop Rodgers published an argument in Foreign Policy last month likening Iraqi Kurdistan to a “House of Cards,” KRG officials and senior KDP figures were furious. But the more one examines the governance of the Kurdistan Region, the clearer it becomes that the institutions have not yet taken root, and like a house of cards, could easily collapse.

Relations between the KDP and PUK have reached their lowest point since the infamous civil war of the 1990s, which left Iraqi Kurdistan politically divided. The bitter rivalry between Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, who also serves as the deputy leader of the KDP, and PUK leader Bafel Talabani has resulted in a dysfunctional governing system marked by minimal cooperation.

Genuine fears of a formal dual administration have emerged, where each party would govern its own territories separately within the region. The PUK, which remains a partner in the KRG but has abstained from cabinet meetings due to a long-running political quarrel with the KDP, shared these reports through their official channels, seizing an opportunity for an easy hit on its regional rival.

Sulaymaniyah province, largely under PUK control, has experienced ongoing disputes with the KDP regarding the equitable distribution of the Kurdistan Region’s revenues for years. These disagreements, whether real or fabricated, have deep historical roots and often stem from differing political perspectives and priorities between the two dominant Kurdish parties.

Revenue-sharing disagreements typically revolve around the allocation of funds generated from the region’s natural resources, such as oil and gas, as well as taxation and customs revenue. The KDP, which controls the Erbil and Duhok provinces, often holds a more prominent position in the KRG and has been accused by the PUK of monopolizing the decision-making process when it comes to revenue distribution. Consequently, the PUK believes that Sulaymaniyah province does not receive its fair share of the overall revenue generated in the Kurdistan Region.

Part of the so-called marginalization of Sulaimaniyah is the PUK’s fabrication to garner support from the population and maintain its influence. Growing anti-KDP sentiment in Sulaimaniyah is part of the PUK’s strategy to keep itself on par with the KDP, as it can neither compete with the latter’s relative stability nor its grip on vital government institutions or sources of revenue.

Conversely, the KDP employs various tactics to stay atop the game and maintain control over the governance of the Kurdistan Region. One such tactic is controlling the majority of the seats in the Kurdistan Parliament, with 45 seats in the 111-strong house. This has been achieved through its influence over the 11 quota seats allocated for minorities in the region. This means the KDP essentially controls the legislature, in addition to the KRG and the Kurdistan Region presidency. Its grip on the Ministry of Natural Resources is another reason for the PUK and others to feel excluded from the major decision-making process on the Kurdistan Region’s main source of revenue: its energy sector.

The Sons

Following the ill-fated Kurdistan independence referendum, KDP leader Massoud Barzani largely left the party’s affairs in the hands of his eldest son, Masrour Barzani, who had previously worked in the intelligence agency before stepping into the political spotlight as premier in 2018. The relationship between Masrour Barzani and PUK leadership has been far from successful. Barzani has been unable to build a working relationship with former PUK co-leader Lahur Shiekh Jangi or current leader Bafel Talabani. He relied on KRG Deputy Premier Qubad Talabani to maintain contact, but that line of communication was severed as well.

Relations between Barzani and Qubad Talabani have been tense since the formation of the KRG’s ninth government in 2018. Unlike his predecessor, Nechirvan Barzani, who granted certain powers to Talabani, Masrour has allegedly centralized them, excluding the PUK from critical decision-making and provoking resentment. 

The clash between the prime minister and the PUK highlights not only escalating friction between the governing Kurdish factions, but also potential irreconcilable disagreements regarding power-sharing. Talabani has abstained from attending cabinet meetings, accusing Barzani of unilateral decisions and depriving the PUK of equitable participation in government projects and employment. Furthermore, the PUK has obstructed Barzani’s governance in areas under its jurisdiction. The PUK wields significant influence in its dispute with the KDP due to its control over a large portion of the region’s natural gas resources, crucial for future prosperity. In fact, last year, PUK President Bafel Talabani halted the construction of a KRG-endorsed pipeline extending from the Khor Mor field to Erbil. 

Looking Ahead

As the longstanding rivalry between the KDP and the PUK intensifies, the possibility of a formal dual administration in the region becomes increasingly probable. With an already dysfunctional governing system, the risk of further fragmentation grows, threatening the stability of the Kurdistan Region.

The strained relationship between Prime Minister Masrour Barzani and PUK leader Bafel Talabani shows no signs of improvement, making the prospect of finding common ground more difficult than ever. External factors, such as the involvement of regional powers like Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran, further complicate matters and could exacerbate tensions in the area.

The future of the KDP and PUK’s cooperation on key issues, such as revenue-sharing and power distribution, remains uncertain. While it may take time for the two parties to reach a mutual understanding, opposition parties are keeping a close watch on the situation, ready to capitalize on any fallout resulting from the ongoing discord.

So, the deep-rooted rivalry between the KDP and PUK, alongside an increasingly dysfunctional governing system, heightens the risk of a formal dual administration emerging in the Kurdistan region. As the situation continues to deteriorate, it remains to be seen whether both parties can find common ground and work together to maintain the relative stability in the region.