Masrour Barzani (left) with his father Masoud Barzani (right)
Masrour Barzani (left) with his father
Masoud Barzani (right)

The Kurdish region moved several steps closer last month towards forming its new government. This couldn’t come soon enough given that it has been almost three months since parliamentary elections took place, and more than three years since the region had a properly functioning government.

On 2 December, the leadership council of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) announced that it was putting forward its candidates for both the Presidency and the premiership of the region. Unsurprisingly, both its nominees are from the Barzani family. The candidate for prime minister is Masrour Barzani (b.1969) who is the son of former president Masoud Barzani, who has been in charge of the region’s security apparatus for the past few years. The presidential nominee is the outgoing premier, Nechirvan Barzani (b.1966), who is Masoud Barzani’s nephew.

The nomination of a presidential candidate came as something of a surprise because the issue of how to choose a new president had not been clarified or agreed upon. However, the plan is for Nechirvan Barzani to take up the post until such a time as the Kurdish constitution can be approved. When that happens, the parliament will be allowed to vote for a new president.

Dropping objections

This way of doing things is a departure from the KDP’s old insistence that the president should be chosen by direct election only. Opposition parties, as well as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), spent years calling for the system to be altered so that the president could be chosen by the parliament rather than by the people, which is something they wanted to be accompanied by the watering down of presidential powers.

The KDP had always resisted such a move because it knows that the safest way of getting its own candidate into the Presidency was to go to the electorate. Now, however, it has had a change of heart. This volte-face by the KDP has nothing to do with any preference for any particular governance structure. Instead it is linked to the fact that, because of the election results, the KDP has a significant majority in the parliament — where it has 45 out of 111 seats — so it will be able to approve its candidate of choice.

The two Barzani cousins therefore look set to dominate the Kurdish region for the next four years.

Masoud Barzani still in charge

In reality — although the KDP made it appear as though these two candidates were the party’s choice — they were both chosen by Masoud Barzani who may have stepped down from office in 2017, but who continues to hold the strings of power. While his son and nephew will be the public face of the Kurdish region, there is little doubt that Masoud Barzani will be controlling everything from behind the scenes and that all the key decisions will come from him.

Of these two nominees, it is Masoud’s son Masrour Barzaniwho will be strongest. This is because, while the region has traditionally had a presidential system, when Masoud Barzani stepped down in 2017 he handed many of the presidential powers over to the prime minister. The KDP is unlikely to revert to the previous system which means that Masrour will have greater powers invested in him than his cousin who is three years older than him.

These nominations mark the inauguration of the third generation of rulers from the same line of the Barzani family after: Mustafa Barzani, who led the Kurdish liberation struggle; then his son Masoud who ruled the Kurdish region until October 2017; and now Masrour. Notably, another of Masoud Barzani’s sons, Delshad Barzani is to take over from Masrour as head of the Kurdish region’s Security Council. 

While the other political parties may not like this domination of the Barzani cousins, there is little that they can do because of their parliamentary weaknesses. It is a foregone conclusion that both Nechirvan and Masrour will be approved by the parliament, leaving the KDP in an even more dominant position. The PUK and other Kurdish political parties will be left weaker than ever before.

Forming the government

Despite not yet actually being approved by the parliament, Masrour Barzani has already started reaching out to other political parties to try to form his new government. Although the KDP threatened after the elections that it may opt to form a majority government, it has since backtracked and is calling on the other parties to join it in an ‘alliance government’.

There is little doubt that the PUK will respond positively to these overtures. It is not going to forfeit its positions in the government, even if its role will be greatly weakened from that of previous governments.

Goran, another party, appears to be going down the same path. Although it has been more outspoken about the KDP and its insistence on dominating everything in the region, the party has not announced that it intends to remain in opposition. It therefore looks as though Goran is eyeing positions and, if it is able to get what it wants including the head of the parliament post, it may well join the KDP government.

By contrast the New Generation movement is clear that it will not take part and so is the Islamic Union of Kurdistan.

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