Opposition parties challenge KDP, PUK for influence in Baghdad and beyond

15-04-2022 07:09


The Kurdistan Region's political parties each have their own outreach to foreign diplomats and Shia and Sunni parties in Iraq. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) have been the Region’s most prominent forces for the past three decades and have strong external relations, but opposition parties are increasingly ambitious about displacing the ruling parties’ monopoly on being the voice of the Kurds.

This year, the New Generation Movement organized a Newroz celebration in Baghdad for diplomats from 20 countries, a new step for the regionally based opposition party.

"The meeting indicates that the groups representing the Kurds in Iraq are not just the PUK and the KDP, but other people and forces," Himdad Shaheen, a spokesperson for the New Generation Movement, told Peregraf.

Some people believe "that international opinion is with the PUK and the KDP, but this appears not to be true…there are other people who are supported by the international community," he added.

Founded in 2018 by businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid, New Generation holds parliamentary seats in both Erbil and Baghdad, winning nine seats in last year’s federal elections and becoming the third largest party in the Kurdistan Region. It has been critical of the KDP and the PUK and refused to join the government.

"We, as the opposition, will have a relationship with international countries, which will certainly have an effect because they continue to support free opinion, free media, and the opposition," Shaheen said.

He went on to argue that the party’s relations with other Iraqi groups also differed from the Kurdistan Region’s ruling parties.

"Of course, we are more closely related to the Iraqi parties who are civilians, do not have militias, and believe in human rights, democracy, and freedom," said Shaheen, referring to their pact with Imtidad and independent MPs in the Council of Representatives.

Other opposition parties from the Kurdistan Region are also making their own way, including the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), the Kurdistan Justice Group (KJG), and the Change Movement (Gorran).

Mohammed Hakim, a spokesperson for the KJG, told Peregraf that the party "has historically had relations with some Shia and Sunni parties in the Iraqi opposition…but I cannot say that our relations are the level of the KDP and the PUK."

In this parliament, the KJG has one MP, but last week party officials met with a range of groups to discuss government formation and the election of Iraq’s president.

"We went to Baghdad at the level of [party leader] Ali Bapir and the political bureau and tried to strengthen our relations," said Hakim, adding that they also met with diplomats from a variety of countries, including the US, Iran, Turkey, the UK, and Europe.

The KIU with its four MPs is also active in Baghdad.

It has not joined with any Iraqi parties, but are "not far from any party" either, KIU Executive Council member Mustafa Abdullah told Peregraf.

As for the KDP, it has thrown its lot in with the Sadrists and the Sunni bloc in a so-called tripartite alliance, while the PUK is working closely with the Shia Framework group, which is close to Iran.

"We believe that relations should be in the service of the citizens, so the KIU has good relations with all Iraqi parties," Abdullah said, adding that "we don't have bad relations with the United States, Iran, Turkey, Britain, and all the countries that have consulates in the Region."

"We have decided to be active and serious in opposition against corruption and inequality," he added.

Abdulla said that contact was ongoing between the KIU, KJG, and New Generation to discuss a common approach, but that so far there has been no agreement between the opposition parties.

The first attempt to create coordination among the Kurdistan Region’s opposition was in 2009, when the Change Movement, the KIU, and the KJG made up 40 out of 111 seats in the Kurdistan Parliament.

In last year’s elections, however, the Change Movement lost all of its sets in Baghdad.

"Since its inception, the Change Movement has believed that relations should be national, especially for Kurdistan’s parties," Shonas Sherko, a member of the Change Movement's diplomatic relations room told Peregraf.

"The Change Movement has always believed that the way to resolve disputes between the parties is in the interest of the homeland, so now it has relations and exchanges with all the political forces and parties in the Region and Iraq," he said.

In the past, the Change Movement wanted external relations for the parties in the Kurdistan Region to be governmental and national, rather than strictly partisan, nor did it want to be the focus of the balance of power in the Region. As a result, it was not a big player on the diplomatic stage, Sherko said, noting that the sole trip abroad by late party leader Nawshirwan Mustafa in his official capacity had been to Iran.

Despite this attitude, Change Movement officials routinely meet with officials from other parties or diplomats, using those relationships as a pressure card against the KDP and the PUK as a way to influence domestic politics.