PUK conference set for September 27
PUK conference set for September 27

PUK conference: Bafel Talabani poised for leadership sweep

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Mark September 27 on your calendar: The venue is booked and, many believe, the stage is set for a preordained outcome at the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)’s fifth party conference.

Delegates will gather in Qalachwalan, Sulaymaniyah province, marking the party’s first conference since the collapse of its ill-fated co-leadership system.

While PUK brass are touting this conference as a fresh start aimed at ending the politics of division and intra-party factional warfare, some disenchanted members see it as the last nail in the coffin for democratic discourse within its ranks.

Bestoon Sabrawi, a PUK Leadership Council member, told The Citadel that this fifth assembly will be no ordinary event. “We aim to centralize decision-making and tackle the lingering issues that have held us back,” he said.

The 124-member Leadership Council was elected during the 2019 conference, which marked the rise of Lahur Sheikh Jangi Talabany as the party co-leader with the plurality of votes over Bafel Talabani, who came second. 

However, that unity was short-lived. Bafel Talabani, eldest son of the late leader Jalal Talabani, carried out a putsch against his co-leader and cousin, effectively dismantling the co-leadership structure. This de facto change was formalized last month with sweeping amendments to PUK bylaws.

Now, those loyal to the deposed Lahur are accusing Bafel of systematically removing them from key positions. Among those ousted from posts within the party is Aras Sheikh Jangi, Lahur’s brother and Leadership Council member (whose party membership was suspended but then reinstated).

Recently, Aras Sheikh Jangi announced he will boycott the upcoming conference, calling it pretext to ‘cull’ the party leadership of those not docile towards Bafel Talabani.

Sabrawi clarified that those who have been expelled from the party are not permitted to attend the conference, stating their dismissals are irrevocable.

The upcoming conference will see 600 delegates, including veteran Peshmerga and commanders, descend upon Qalachwalan. Many delegates will be mostly selected based on “tezkiya,” a form of recommendation, as well as from offices, organizations, and various party branches.

Leadership Council member Karim Shakur spoke to The Citadel, remarking that the PUK has suffered from internal divisions and lack of effective leadership that commands all parts of the spectrum within the PUK. “The conference aims to unify the party,” he said.

Among the 124 members of the Leadership Council, six individuals with strong ties to Lahur Talabany have been expelled by Bafel Talabani.

While Talabani and his allies have decided to exclude Lahur Talabany and his associates from the fifth conference, the decision has not gone unchallenged, as skepticism persists among some senior party members towards the treatment of Lahur Talabany.

During the party’s fourth conference, a new entity called the High Political Council of PUK Interests was formed. Created under the leadership of Kosrat Rasul Ali, it included veteran PUK figures Mala Bakhtiar (Bafel Talabani’s father-in-law), Hero Ibrahim Ahmad (Bafel Talabani’s mother), Adnan Mufti, Diler Said Majid, Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, Hakim Qadir Hamejan, Arsalan Bayiz, and Omer Fattah.

Members of this newly formed body, who have been observing the tensions between the two cousins in recent years, now express concerns about the party’s direction under the new, more youthful leadership. They assert that their council lacks the authority to make meaningful contributions to PUK policy.

Barham Salih, the former president of Iraq, is said to be unhappy with the current state of the PUK but has yet to comment publicly on the issue.

A PUK Political Bureau member, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Citadel that the party’s forthcoming fifth conference amounts to little more than a “formality.” The event, they said, has been hurriedly organized without adequate preparation. Whether or not Barham Salih will attend is still up in the air, but the source said, “We will support the conference if it succeeds. Otherwise, we’ll look into alternative options.”

On Mala Bakhtiar, who has been an outspoken critic within the party for years, the politburo member stated that Bakhtiar plans to attend the conference. His participation is contingent upon the High Political Council being endowed with greater powers, especially since Kosrat Rasul is expected to step down for health reasons. Bakhtiar’s stock has seen a precipitous fall within the party recently.

Abu Zeid Saleh, another member of the PUK’s Leadership Council, corroborated this by confirming plans to endow the High Political Council of PUK Interests with more powers: The council will be given more powers and responsibilities than ever before.”

As preparations for the upcoming conference continue—the second since the late Jalal Talabani’s passing—expectations remain relatively low. Bafel Talabani is looking to solidify his power by formally excluding those closely associated with Lahur Talabany. He also intends to overhaul the party’s decision-making structures. Some of the party’s older leaders are likely to lose prominence, while those close to Bafel Talabani are expected to ascend within the party ranks.

In an interview with party media, Bafel Talabani stated his ambition for the PUK to follow the ‘model of Western political parties’ by holding conferences biennially. Critics argue that Talabani seems to have confused the Western tradition of regularly scheduled and competitive party conferences with purges of party ranks to eliminate political rivals: “The fifth congress is the recitation of Surah Al-Fatiha on the grave of the PUK,” Aras Sheikh Jangi said in a statement.

Surah Al-Fatiha is a chapter from the Quran commonly recited at Islamic funerals for blessings and spiritual comfort.