Suleimaniya Rejects Barham Salih
The Western media narrative so far, when commenting on the dramatic win earned by the Goran slate in the Kurdish elections, attributes what happened to a vote against corruption. That is only a fraction of the story.
In mid-June, senior KDP officials were telling me that Noshirwan Mustafa, who is heading the Goran list, may secure, on a good day, four to six seats in the 111 member regional parliament. By mid-July, a source close to the Barzani family revealed that their secret and internal polling showed that Mustafa may walk away with 20 to 23 seats. As it stands, Goran may have won 25 to 30 seats as the results come in.
So what happened?
I believe that the city of Suleimaniya, long wary of Arbil’s and by extension the Barzanis’ rising influence, had two native sons from whom to choose from: Mustafa and Barham Salih, currently the Deputy Prime Minister in Baghdad (…who resigned, or didn’t resign, it’s still not clear). Salih was President Jalal Talabani’s designated successor, but he was thus chosen for a number of reasons; submissive, obedient, and lackluster on his own. It was on these criteria that he was rejected by Suleimaniya, for he wasn’t seen as somebody with the vigor it may take to hold Arbil at bay.
Mustafa is not a very convincing candidate. He’s a drab ideologue, with lousy political skills, who comes off as haughty, incomprehensible and aloof on TV and in meetings. He is certainly no match for the colorful and charismatic Talabani, who head the PUK. But Mustafa wasn’t running against Talabani, he was running against Salih, whose face adorned all the Kurdistani posters in Suleimaniya, in silly poses like doing an ‘Uncle Sam Wants You’.
Mustafa is a 'fighter' while Salih isn't.
Five years ago, when political chatter was rife about the need to find a successor for the visibly aging and ailing Talabani, the name of Salih would be accompanied by expletives in Suleimaniya. When I was there ahead of the elections, the same people who were saying mean things about Salih years back had now acquiesced to his status as heir apparent, but without conviction. Salih was all that Talabani had left after outmaneuvering his rivals within the PUK ‘pride’—emasculated, meek and would protect the corrupt financial empire that Talabani’s immediate family had erected. So he was heir by attrition, and by default.
Western reporters adore Salih. He provides access and urbane, proper English conversation. He collects art, and dishes out gossip about the elites of Baghdad and Washington DC. He even Twitters. Needless to say, these topics don’t carry far among the ‘Blue Label’-infused soirees of the PUK old guard, grizzled and jaded 50-somethings who had seen fighting in the mountains since their teenage years.
It is my opinion that the only matter holding the Kurdish political front together is Talabani’s life expectancy. One should not rule out defections from within the Kurdistani slate to Mustafa’s favor if Talabani is out of the picture. The smaller Islamist and leftist parties that also won a number of seats owe their staying power to subsidies—cash, offices, contracts—from the PUK and the KDP. But if Mustafa accrues a significant number of defectors, they may also opt to join him. In this scenario, the Kurdistani slate may be reduced to a parliamentary minority, and things will get interesting.
Talabani’s demise may also influence the future of the Kurds in Kirkuk, who may opt to stay out of the competition between Arbil and Suleimaniya for domination by going their own way for a negotiated status for their city separate from the KRG. Right now, they look upon Talabani—originally from Koy Sanjak but the Talabani clan is an integral part of the Kurd-Turkuman matrix of Kirkuk—as one of their own. But in a choice between Barzani and Mustafa, they may have little sympathy for either.
Salih was supposed to become the new Prime Minister of the Kurdish region. President Barzani may have looked upon this outcome as a neat way to sideline his nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, the current PM. Nechirvan is the chief rival to Massoud's son and designated heir, Masroor, and Nechirvan wouldn't be able to go to Baghdad to fill the space that Salih is supposed to be vacating, mostly because Nechirvan would be out of his element there seeing that he doesn't even speak Arabic. Political exile for Nechirvan would be political death, something he won't be able to recover from. But Nechirvan may not ride off into the sunset just yet, and he will argue that the deal to appoint Salih in his place is null and void given the election result. This may complicate life for the senior Barzani and his designs for succession.
Furthermore, what is happening in Iraqi Kurdistan must be understood as an extension of the changes across the political landscape of the rest of Iraq. Old lions wither away, and new contenders emerge, fundamentally changing long-established loyalties that carried over from the days of opposition to Saddam. A new political elite is emerging, and with it arrives a new brand of political consciousness. The issues have changed, so naturally will the symbols change too.