Centrist Kurdish groups are emerging in the self-rule Kurdish area in northern Iraq, challenging the traditional leadership by Iraqi President Jalal Talbani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani, the region's current president, according to the London-based daily AL HAYAT. "Iraqi general elections scheduled on March 7 are especially important for Iraqi Kurdistan, not only in determining the future of Arab-Kurdish disputes in Iraq's political process, but also in deciding Kurdish-Kurdish conflicts," the Saudi-owned newspaper reported on Feb. 2. "Early electioneering, fueled by Kurdish conflicts, included exchanges of accusations against traditional political and party figures that are still at the heart of the region's political map. Some verbal attacks targeted the region's new government, which challenges traditional politics there," the paper added in a Baghdad-datelined report.
The latest regional parliamentary elections were held on July 25, 2009. Kurdistan List, a joint list of the KDP and PUK, won the largest share of seats and was tasked to form the next government. Major opposition parties include the Change List and Reform List with 25 and 13 seats respectively.
The new Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has 19 ministries. The new Prime Minister, Barham Salih of the PUK, assumed office on Oct. 28. Minority Turkmen have five seats and Christians (Chaldeans and Armenians) are represented by four seats.
"While Iraqi Arabs usually welcome political fragmentation in the region (Iraqi Kurdistan), hoping that it would weaken Kurdish weight in Iraqi politics, the fragmentation, if it becomes widespread, is likely to encourage the emergence of Kurdish extremists and isolationists," wrote Moshreq Abbas, an AL HAYAT Iraq correspondent.
"This situation is expected to have calamitous results in Iraq and the Middle East," he added, arguing that extremist Kurdish leaders would not accept anything less than full independence for Iraqi Kurdistan. This event, he said, would worry Turkey, Iran and Syria, who have Kurdish minorities with self-rule and/or independence aspirations.
For its part, the United States, which has given on and off support for Iraqi Kurds over the decades, "is likely to support any centrist-national Kurdish front that may emerge, but only as long as the front abstains from undermining the traditional political structure in the region. Yet, the US view is not strong enough to stop the conflict from expressing itself in upcoming political battles," according to AL HAYAT's Abbas.
Last July's general elections in the KRG weakened the PUK, which now has the challenge of passing through Iraq's general elections in March with the least losses to its integrity, the newspaper said. "The group's problem is that it is not mature enough and too concentrated on its leader-symbol," it added, alluding to Talbani.
After July's elections, a Movement for Change, led by Nawshirwan Mustapha, broke away from the PUK. "This development put the mother group's future in question, especially after the Iraqi general elections," according to AL HAYAT's Abbas. "The conflict between the PUK and the Movement for Change will affect KDP's future, too, especially after the offshoot won a quarter of the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament's 100 seats," he said.
A co-founder of the PUK, Mustapha, 66, is a prominent Kurdish politician, media proprietor, strategist, author and historian. "Although the Movement for Change had a relatively good showing in the region's general elections, the fact that Salih of the PUK was chosen as prime minister shows that the traditional division of power between the PUK and the KDP still holds.
"Yet, the fact that the movement's share came at the expense of the PUK gives credit to reports that contacts are underway between the group and the KDP and to expectations that Iraqi general elections will bring about dramatic changes" on Iraqi Kurdistan's political scene, AL HAYAT said.
"The PUK is anticipating all this through efforts by Salih to introduce good governance principles to the region's government and to make the government independent of partisan considerations. Salih has been enhancing financial and administrative supervision in government departments on one hand and trying to sort out disputes between the region and the central government in Baghdad through political centrism and professional approaches on the other," it added.
Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, are at odds over several matters, including the future of the region's militia, the Peshmerga, as well as how to split returns of the region's customs department and how to contract out oil fields within the region. "The PUK also has been showing increasing openness towards the rest of Iraq's political powers compared to earlier isolationist tendencies. However, the centrism of Talbani and Salih brought them local headaches: they were accused by opponents in the local elections of being too lenient," Abbas wrote in AL HAYAT. The main opposition party in the polls was the Movement for Change, he said.