PUK leader Bafel Talabani votes during PUK congress 2023
PUK leader Bafel Talabani votes during PUK congress 2023

PUK congress 2023: A post-mortem

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has concluded its fifth congress with Bafel Talabani re-elected as leader amid significant shifts in party leadership and notable absences.

Talabani, unanimously re-elected as PUK leader, termed the five-day party congress a success, even though it was initially set for three days. At the congress, which drew 600 delegates, Talabani achieved most of his proposed changes.

Meanwhile, the influential Erbil faction, led by military veteran and former Kurdistan Region Vice President Kosrat Rasul, managed to secure a larger share of Leadership Council positions. Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa — whose forces were instrumental in Talabani’s intra-party putsch against former co-leader Lahur Sheikh Jangi Talabany — was offered a senior position as secretary of the High Council of PUK Interests.

In addition to comprehensive changes to the party’s by-laws, governing structures, and leadership system, a notable development was the absence of several key PUK figures, both seasoned and emerging.

A primary objective of the congress was to close the drawbridge on deposed co-leader Lahur Talabany. Additionally, about a dozen high-ranking party stalwarts whose influence was diminishing in Talabani’s shadow, including the party’s intellectual heavyweight Mala Bakhtiar and former Iraq President Barham Salih, chose to skip the congress.

Among those who boycotted the congress were party heavyweights like Hakim Qadir, Adnan Mufti, and Omar Fatah. They voiced concerns about the congress being rammed through and the ambiguity surrounding their future roles and status within the party. Even the party’s official spokesperson decided to stay away.

While Mala Bakhtiar was one of the only absentees to publicly articulate these concerns, the predominant issue highlighted was the perceived shortcomings in the planning and execution of the congress compared to previous editions.

Before the congress, Mala Bakhtiar noted that prior assemblies had an intensive preparation period leading up to the conference. This phase would last more than six months, during which PUK members were actively involved in generating proposals for discussion at the conference. Bakhtiar pointed out that this thorough preparation was absent this time around.

Rezan Sheikh Diler, a former advisor to the PUK Political Bureau and notable absentee, told The Citadel , “The PUK seems to currently value members and specific groups loyal to the leadership.” She emphasized that the present PUK leadership has a preference for those overtly pledging allegiance to the leader.

Former Iraqi President Barham Salih decided against attending the congress and has not commented on his absence beyond close aides saying he’s ‘abroad’. A group of seasoned PUK leaders informally labelled the Jaff Group — which includes figures like Hamidi Haji Ghali, Mahmoud Sangawi, and Adnan Hama Mina — also opted to boycott the event.

Sources informed The Citadel that a meeting at Mahmoud Sangawi’s residence involving Bafel Talabani, Sangawi, and Adnan Hama Mina concluded on a tense note. Talabani reportedly did not offer roles that were agreeable to two men, leading the meeting to end abruptly without as much as a goodbye.

“A successful congress will garner our praise, but any shortcomings will draw our criticism,” a source close to Barham Salih told The Citadel.

Initially scheduled for three days, the PUK congress extended to five. While PUK-owned media outlets attributed the extension to “robust” and “democratic” debates over the party’s internal rulebook, sources told The Citadel that the bylaws proposed by Talabani passed with minimal changes and were not the main cause of delays.

The true contention, according to these sources, centered around disputes over leadership positions and Talabani’s challenges in securing approvals for his intended leadership slates. The emphasis on rulebook debates in party-owned media could be an attempt to spin the dispute in a positive light, and portray them as expressions of democratic debate within the party rather than disputes among party brass over seats at the top table.

Kosrat Rasul’s faction, represented by his sons, Shalaw and Derbaz (Rasul himself was too ill to attend), sought an increased presence on the party’s Leadership Council, particularly with the PUK leader now operating without any deputies. As a compromise, the number of council members affiliated with Rasul’s family rose from eight to 11 within the span of those two extra days.

The PUK is set to undergo more organizational changes. Beyond the all-powerful Political Bureau — members of which will be appointed directly by Talabani — and the existing Leadership Council, there are plans to beef up the High Council of PUK Interests. Talabani will appoint all members to this expanded council, too.

Additionally, the PUK is introducing a new body called the Support Council. This body will consist of 100 members, hosting both veteran cadres and a new generation of youth. A designated secretary will oversee the council, and, like the other entities, its membership will be determined by Talabani. He claims that the Support Council will be the party’s incubator for new leaders among its youth wing and women in the party.

A senior PUK official, speaking under anonymity, detailed Talabani’s vice grip on all levers of power within the party: Talabani will serve as the president of the PUK and will helm both the politburo and Leadership Council. Moreover, he will chair both the interests council and the support council. The latter two bodies will only possess secretaries to act in his stead, not bona fide leaders.

“Throughout the five-day congress, tensions flared between Talabani and Kosrat Rasul over the selection of leadership members,” the senior source informed The Citadel.

The roster of the 60 Leadership Council members was a hustle among the a select few PUK leaders. There was input from Bafel Talabani, KRG Deputy PM (and Bafel’s brother) Qubad Talabani, the Kosrat Rasul bloc, the PUK’s Kirkuk faction, and Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa. This compiled list was subsequently put to a binary vote on the congress floor as a single slate. When asked by reporters about the democratic deficit in slate elections, Talabani said it’s a “normal process that happens in all other countries.”

Other sources told The Citadel that of the 60 Leadership Council members, 11 are to be from Kosrat Rasul’s faction, roughly seven come from the Kirkuk bloc, and several others are trusted confidants of Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa. Notable among them is Jalal Sheikh Karimi, the former deputy interior minister. The remaining members were handpicked by the Talabani brothers.

Regarding those absent from the congress, the source stated, “There will be no concessions for Lahur Sheikh Jangi [Talabany] and his close associates. They are essentially shut out of the PUK.

“However, there’s a pledge to back Dr. Barham Salih in his pursuit of another presidential term.” This claim may come as a surprise for many observers of Kurdish and Iraqi politics.

Salih’s bid for the Iraqi presidency was backed by Talabani in 2018, which saw Salih return to the party from self-imposed exile and abandon his newly established political movement. Talabani’s uncle Latif Rashid got the nod for the following term, leaving Salih out in the cold as a one-term president.

The source further added that the roster for the High Council for PUK Interests is still under deliberation, suggesting the door remains ajar for veteran leaders who were not present at the congress.

Before the congress commenced, Talabani and Mala Bakhtiar engaged in multiple rounds of negotiations: “Bakhtiar aimed for the council’s chairmanship and pressed for expanded powers. However, Talabani was steadfast, asserting that he would be the one to define the council’s structure and membership. Their talks ended without an agreement.”

Bakhtiar would go on to publish a stunning attack on the PUK leader in a video uploaded to Facebook.

With a raft of veteran leaders and party bigwigs choosing not to attend or openly boycotting the event, the elected leadership showcased a mix of fresh faces and seasoned officials. Among those elected were Ziad Jabar, most recent leader of the PUK parliamentary bloc in Kurdistan’s parliament, and Rebaz Birkoti, a former member of Erbil’s provincial council.

One of the more provocative appointments was Counter-Terror Group chief Wahab Halabjay, who has been sentenced to death in absentia by Erbil courts. The PUK rejects the courts in KDP stronghold Erbil, deeming them political instruments the of KDP.

Jabar lauded the congress, telling The Citadel, “It’s the best one to date. Each congress signifies a natural evolution, leading to shifts in the leadership and program.”

With this congress out of the way, all eyes are now on two crucial upcoming elections, with Talabani bullish about his party’s chances – at least in public. Many observers predict electoral abyss for the PUK, especially after Lahur Talabany’s pledge to run against the party in Kurdistan’s upcoming parliamentary elections. Talabani and the PUK expect those shifts in leadership and a cohesive program will stem the tide.