The semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan will hold parliamentary elections this weekend that could have a major impact on its regional relations and the deployment of its huge energy sector.
Five major parties will vie for positions in the 111-seat legislative assembly, the fourth such election since the Kurds of Iraq formed their own semi-independent state almost 25 years ago by carving out the Iraqi provinces of Erbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dahuk.
During its brief existence, Iraqi Kurdistan, which comprises some 5.2 million people, has been dominated by the incumbent Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani. In the last election, these two parties together won more than half (59) of the seats in parliament.
The KDP and the PUK actually ran under a joint banner and governed Kurdistan through a coalition arrangement. However, this time around the KDP and the PUK are running separately, and observers are wondering how PUK will fare with the public given that its leader, Talabani, is ailing after suffering a stroke last year.
The third largest party, The Change Movement (CM), of opposition politician Nawshirwan Mustafa (a former PUK deputy chief), gained 25 seats in the 2009 poll.
Interestingly, the Change party’s name was inspired by U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign theme from 2008 as Mustafa has also called for reforms and an end to corruption in Kurdistan.
The two other principal parties, the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (which also form part of the opposition) espouse Islamist viewpoints and hold a small number of seats in the parliament.
Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a London-based analyst for the Jamestown Foundation, told International Business Times that the future of the PUK is very much at stake in this election.
According to preliminary results, he noted, the PUK party fared badly in opinion polls, and the opposition party Change is reportedly the number one party in the one-time PUK-stronghold of Sulaimaniyah, while KDP controls Erbil (the capital) and Duhok. Reportedly, the PUK party is not happy over these results.
“Analysts and reporters suggest that the PUK is losing control due to the fact its leader, Talabani, has been hospitalized in Germany since suffering a stroke in December 2012,” van Wilgenburg said. “Experts suggest the party would disintegrate in case Talabani dies. But so far it is not very clear what the health situation of Talabani [really] is, and the PUK says Talabani's health is [actually] improving.”
A total of 31 parties comprising more than 1,100 candidates are participating in the election.
The poll will be observed by both Iraq's Independent High Electoral Commission and certain international monitors.
The results of the parliamentary poll may foreshadow what will happen in November, when Kurdistan holds its first provincial elections since 2005.
Van Wilgenburg commented that if PUK loses support, the balance of power in Kurdistan could be altered, with the Change party potentially becoming the second largest party and power broker (thereby pushing PUK to third place), behind KDP.
“This could result in more violence and tensions in the future,” van Wilgenburg stated.
Despite the power-sharing agreement they have had for many years, PUK and KDP are quite different in their outlook and policies.
Van Wilgenburg said that PUK is more of a leftist party, while the KDP has more tribal and conservative roots.
“PUK wants a parliamentary system in the Kurdistan region, while the KDP prefers a presidential system, with more power for the president [Barzani],” he said. “The KDP is more close to Turkey [in terms of policy], while the PUK is more close to the policies of Iran.”
Another complicating factor has to do with PUK’s control of military forces in the Sulaimaniyah region. Insight Kurdistan reported that the PUK apparently controls some 90,000 armed soldiers and all the security and interior forces in Sulaymaniyah -- meaning a loss of votes by the PUK in the area would not necessarily diminish its armed presence there, raising fears of instability.
“We have a 90,000-strong armed force; even if we get only one seat [in the election], we will not abandon power,” PUK Leadership Council member Ata Sarawi told the Awene newspaper.
What makes the political climate in Kurdistan so unusual is that it is not a fully independent sovereign nation. Regional countries oppose full independence for Kurdistan because they fear that the Kurdish people who live across various states in the area, including Iran, Syria and Turkey, would seek to form their own homeland.
The United States also favors semi-autonomy for Kurdistan.
“The U.S. therefore also opposed separate oil deals by the Kurdistan region and prefers Baghdad to control the 'Kurdish oil' resources, fearing a break-up of Iraq,” Van Wilgenburg said.
“The Kurds haven't been able to form a state due to being divided by Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria. In general, these countries have cooperated against the establishment of a Kurdish state. [But] due to instability in Iraq and Syria, the Kurds have been able to get more autonomy from Baghdad and Damascus.”
For the United States, Kurdistan forms a crucial part of its geopolitical strategy in the Middle East -- indeed, it has oil and is in a very dangerous neighborhood.
“In general, the Kurdistan Regional Government has a pro-Western policy, but Iraqi Kurdish politicians think the U.S. is now supporting Baghdad over Erbil,” Van Wilgenburg noted. “Despite U.S. objections toward separate oil deals between Erbil and oil companies, U.S. companies like Chevron (NYSE: CVX) and Exxon Mobil (NYSE: XOM) still play a big role in the Kurdish oil industry.”
According to a report in FuelFix.com, Kurdistan is on the precipice of a huge oil boom. After it completes a pipeline that will transport crude exports to neighboring Turkey by the end of the year, oil revenues are expected to be abundant. The Kurdistan region is estimated by local officials to possess some 45 billion barrels in oil reserves, enough to satisfy U.S. demand for almost seven years.
PUKMEDIA reported that Kurdistan also has between 3 and 6 trillion cubic meters of gas, noting that if the region were fully independent, its oil and gas reserves would rank it among the ten largest such nations on earth.
Although Kurdistan's oil reserves are less than one-third of the rest of Iraq, the Kurdish oil minister, Ashti Hawrami, told The Economist that the region can deliver an output of 1 million barrels per day within three years.
And it is not just U.S. oil companies that are active in Kurdistan -- energy firms from Canada, South Korea, Turkey, Britain, France, China, United Arab Emirates, India, Iraq, Austria, Hungary, Russia, Norway, Spain and even Papua New Guinea have set up operations there.
“Kurdistan is 11 years ahead of the rest of Iraq in terms of political and commercial development,” Luay al-Khatteeb, head of the Iraq Energy Institute, a London-based think-tank, told The Economist.
However, the difficult question is what role, if any, Iraq will play in the development of Kurdistan energy resources and more important, how much will Baghdad share in the revenue?
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.