Bafel Talabani Chatham House
Bafel Talabani at Chatham House. Photo: Sarhang Hars

Bafel Talabani hints at who the saboteur-in-chief really is

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Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Bafel Talabani gave a candid address to a small audience at Chatham House in London, painting a somewhat bleak view of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI). He made no illusions about the public’s displeasure, stating: “the people [of the Kurdistan Region] are disgusted with us, they’re disgusted with the PUK, they’re disgusted with the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party], they’re disgusted with everyone.”

When I met him in the Henry Price room, an intimate setting adorned with a quote by Nelson Mandela, Talabani was disappointed to learn I represented NRT English. “Absolutely not,” was his response to a one-on-one interview request. He criticized the Kurdish service of NRT, waving away my attempts to press our editorial independence from NRT’s Kurdish service. Throughout the talk, he lambasted the opposition, social media activists, and influencers. His tone was informal and lively, with bundles of charisma evident as he navigated the discussion.

Et cetera, et cetera.

Bafel Talabani

Talabani voiced his concerns about the lack of robust institutions in the KRI, the “weaponization of the KRG and the judiciary” by the KDP, and the diminishing freedom of expression, with journalists and activists facing national security-related charges. He asserted that the rest of Iraq now fares better than the KRI and largely held the KDP accountable for these challenges. Yesterday, Bilal Hama, a member of the Kurdish diaspora posted a video of himself debating with Talabani on the streets of London. Today, he posted a message on Facebook alleging that PUK security forces had arrested his parents in Halabja, demanding he delete the video before they’re released. Sources have told reporters at NRT Kurdish that the parents were questioned but not arrested as claimed by Hama.

The dichotomy between Talabani’s portrayal and the media campaign by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on the fourth anniversary of the ninth cabinet’s inauguration under Masrour Barzani’s leadership is stark. One narrative, championed by the KRG’s media office via snazzy social media videos, projects the image of a prospering region overcoming obstacles. On the other hand, Talabani describes a region wrestling with existential threats not witnessed in decades. Which narrative mirrors reality?

The Kurdistan Region faces political and economic turbulence, ongoing tussles with Baghdad, and a loss of control over its energy sector. The public, wearied by almost a decade of cascading economic crises, now prioritizes the steady payment of public sector salaries. The recent approval of a federal budget, indicating increased infrastructure projects, enhanced services, and job opportunities, prompts a collective indifference towards the growing control of Baghdad over Kurdistan affairs. The KDP’s doom-laden appeals to past injustices inflicted by Baghdad against Kurdistan are losing potency by the day. The Kurdistan Region’s autonomy, once high on the list of priorities among the citizenry, has been bumped down by the consistent failures of statecraft by Kurdish officials over the last decade. This political disenchantment is reflected in the record low voter turnout in the 2018 Kurdistan Regional parliamentary elections, a trend likely to persist in the subsequent elections, whenever they take place.

When it comes to responsibility for the KRI’s political setbacks, Talabani’s pointed remarks towards Masrour Barzani were a clear attempt to pin the blame on the KDP. But as the PUK shares governance of the region with the KDP, particularly self-rule in the Sulaymaniyah and Halabja provinces, it cannot evade its share of the accountability for any obstacles the region faces.

At the heart of the stalemate between the KDP and the PUK is Talabani himself. He expressed frustration that every time the PUK and KDP approach reconciliation, someone “sabotages” the process. Although he didn’t explicitly name the perpetrator, he insinuated that Barzani himself is the chief saboteur, claiming that none of the ongoing issues could transpire without the approval of Masrour Barzani’s faction within the KDP.

On the subject of the PUK’s increasing reliance on the federal court to resolve outstanding local issues between the PUK and KDP, Talabani commented, “Every time we go to Baghdad, we do ourselves a disservice, but we’re forced to go to Baghdad because the situation is, by your own admission, the Kurdistan courts are completely and utterly not…it is politicized and weaponized.” He expressed a personal preference for resolving matters in bilateral rather than on the media or in a court that lacks legitimacy in Kurdistan. He concluded, “It’s not something we want to do and it isn’t just the PUK that are doing this, you know, yourself, people have argued in Baghdad about the extension of the parliament, et cetera, et cetera, so please be fair.”

The core issue appears to lie in the fact that Masrour Barzani, the de facto second-in-command of the KDP, does not seem to acknowledge Bafel Talabani as the legitimate leader of the PUK, a dynamic partly influenced by Talabani’s character and political strategy. On multiple occasions—recently with the passing of the federal budget, the election of former Iraqi President Barham Salih to the ceremonial head of state role, and during the Kurdistan independence referendum—Talabani brokered deals with certain Iraqi Shiite factions in what the KDP views as acts of betrayal to secure his own personal objectives. This has resulted in a significant trust deficit between the KDP and Talabani. The PUK’s waning geopolitical leverage since then and Masrour’s strengthened position within his own party means the KDP is better able to avenge perceived slights of yesteryear than it was in its severely weakened position post-2017’s independence referendum.

Moreover, the PUK’s internal discord, where the democratically elected co-leader Lahur Sheikh Jangi Talabany was the victim of an internal party putsch by Bafel Talabani as the latter started to exert his ever-tightening vice grip on power, further compounds the issue. Lahur, who won the majority of votes at the PUK conference and remains widely popular, represents another reason for the KDP’s ambivalence towards Bafel Talabani. None of these matters were discussed at Chatham House, with Talabani attempting to portray an image of a victimized PUK and a similarly victimized Sulaymaniyah the party claims to represent.

The discussion, titled ‘Evolving Dynamics in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq: In Conversation with PUK President Bafel Talabani’, was organized by Chatham House’s Iraq Initiative.