However, even democracy has its winners and losers. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), once one of Iraq’s two predominant Kurdish political movements, suffered a severe loss at the hands of the region’s voters in the September parliamentary elections. Running independently and not part of a coalition for the first time in 20 years, the party took less than 20 percent of the vote, lost 11 seats in the regional parliament, and was pushed into third place behind the Movement for Change—a relative newcomer—in terms of the overall vote.
As the party attempts to regroup, Asharq Al-Awsat spoke to one if its most senior leaders, Barham Salih, the former prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional government and a former deputy prime minister of Iraq, about the party’s response to the recent election, and what he believes it needs to do to adapt to face the challenges of the present and the future.
Asharq Al-Awsat: You described the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s most losses in parliamentary elections in Kurdistan region as “cruel.” What effect has it had on you?
Barham Salih: Yes, it was cruel. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) has enjoyed a solid political position in the Kurdish region in the 35 years since its establishment, and these election results were certainly unexpected and perhaps disappointing for some. However, those who had observed problems within the Union and its impacts on public opinion may have found that the election results fell in line with their assessment of the situation. The results form an eloquent message to the Union to reconsider some of its policies and rework its leadership style, and to look at the benefits of political and governmental reform in order to return the PUK to what it once was. The PUK used to be known for the power of its will, a capacity for innovation, and its leadership role in reform projects. It never played along with or encouraged negative phenomena, although this very complaint has arisen among our Kurdish support base.
Q: Have you pinned down the errors made by the PUK between the last election cycle and this one?
The PUK is a dynamic organization and conducts debates and discussions within our ranks regularly. There are a range of perspectives on our internal situation and the best way to take advantage of events. Much has been achieved in terms of developing Kurdistan, most notably with the democratic process having been revived, and the PUK is proud of the role it has played in realizing these accomplishments. At the same time, there are failures which cannot be ignored.
We are always open to innovation and reform, and opposing cronyism, corruption, and authoritarianism. There are some who feel that our performance recently has not been compatible with these values, and the Kurdish voter told us that he is not satisfied with our recent work. This is the essence of the democratic process: elections are the place where public opinion rules, and if the PUK cares about the future, we must carefully evaluate the message we get from voters, interact with it, and reconsider our policies and management style accordingly.
Q: But some statements that have recently surfaced describe disagreements among party leadership as a key factor in these election results…
There are definitely differences among our leadership, some of them personal, and most falling under the heading of conflicts of interest. However, there is also a discrepancy between views on prospects for the political situation and the nature of the party and its role in society. This is normal in a party as dynamic as the PUK. The PUK is an essential part of Kurdish resistance and we are proud of our leading role in establishing a separate entity in the region of Kurdistan with our allies in the Kurdish Democratic Party and other national groups. This process has not been easy, requiring great sacrifices. Today, more than 22 years after establishing a government in the Kurdistan region, there are still structural, political, administrative, and economic reforms that must be carried out.
Moreover, Kurdish society is comprised mostly of the young. More than 70 percent of Kurds are under 30 years of age. We cannot confront these changes with the slogans of the past. This community is undergoing economic, political, social, and cultural changes, at the same time interacting with changes in the wider region. If we are looking toward the future, we must read this map well. The aspirations of our people cannot be based only on past achievements, but instead, they must be based on what we want for our future. Our people, with all due respect to the resistance movements of the past, want us to be sure of what we intend for the future. Perhaps all conflicts, whether they be within our party or any other, can be summarized in the question: are we a party praising past exploits or are we looking toward a promising future? Are we a party fighting for the interests of a small group of people and seeking to control the resources of our country, or are we acting in the service of the public interest and seeking to ensure a better future? The Kurdish voter has spoken, criticizing our message, pushing us to put forth serious assurances that we are dedicated to both the public interest and the future, just as we were in the past.
Q: At the General Conference of the National Union held four years ago, promises were made to include youth in party leadership, but young people have not yet reached leadership roles.
The issue is not the presence of young faces. We must stick to policies based on legitimacy, transparency, and innovation. The party framework cannot be maintained through using public resources to serve factional interests. The party at this time cannot turn into a gang whose goal is to take advantage of people. The successful party is one that creates initiatives to guarantee people their rights. This is certainly not an easy task and will conflict with the interests of many. As you remember, I took over responsibility for the premiership of the Kurdistan Regional Government for two years from 2009-2011 and our reform measures were confronted with many obstacles.
Q: Did the reservations come from within the party?
Both from within the party and from other sources as well. The problem lies within the definition of the role of the party within the community. In the past, and perhaps through the 1990s during the infighting, the ruling party pervaded all aspects of public life, but today it is no longer acceptable for the party to intervene in political life and development in the country. President Jalal Talabani had come up with an ambitious project to regulate the relationship between the government and the party, but again we faced many obstacles throughout the implementation process. In the past, the PUK and the Democratic Party Coalition were aligned under a strategic agreement wherein they enjoyed 85 percent of votes in the region, and today the level of support does not exceed 56 percent. How can we move independents or those representing other schools of thought from a lower managerial position up to school director or a similar high-level job? Another reason is that the PUK is deeply involved in these political debates we talked about earlier, and the splintering of leadership within the party has had a significant impact on our work.
Q: Are you talking about Nushirwan Mustafa and the establishment of the Movement for Change?
Nushirwan Mustafa and other important leaders of the Movement for Change were influential in the PUK. This split impacted both us and our audience, creating confusion regarding the organization of our government. Defining our relationship with Movement for Change will be important in the near future.
Q: Was this split not a wake-up call to reconsider party policies?
Certainly, but unfortunately we have not dealt with the issue in an appropriate manner. Both parties are concerned and hope to reevaluate our relationship. I hope that we can distance ourselves from the tension and that we will be able to participate in a rational dialogue. The most recent elections sent an important message to the PUK, and also pushed us to analyze the new map of Kurdistan that is being drawn so as to respect the will of the voter. Iraqi Kurdistan is largely stable right now, in the midst of a period of reconstruction and development. However we must not forget that we live in a dangerous environment full of challenges, and must rearrange the system in order to encourage understanding and cooperation between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the PUK. This alliance is a precondition for a stable future for Kurdistan, and it has served the Kurdish people by moving us beyond infighting to achieving concrete progress.
However, in light of the new political map that has been drawn, improving the relationship between these two parties is not enough. There are other influential parties in the region like the Movement for Change. We must join hands to reorganize our priorities and begin to understand together what lies ahead for our nation.
Q: You were also among those who issued a statement accepting the PUK’s losses. This statement served to ease much tension, but others in your party did not admit defeat, instead attempting to alter the results.
The official position of the PUK is to respect the will of the voters. There may be individuals that do not embody this position, but the fact is that Kurdish voters went to the polls to express their opinions and we must respect them.
Q: What is the effect of the absence of President Jalal Talabani, Secretary General of the Party, on election results?
There is no doubt that his absence had a significant impact on elections. Jalal has always been a safety valve for development in Iraq and Kurdistan. He’s an impressive historical figure in every sense of the word, and we must not forget that he is the founder of the PUK and its leader. For me, Jalal has been a paternal figure, supporting me in a lot of political ventures. I appreciate him so much, and his absence has certainly left a void. I wish him a speedy recovery.
Q: What is the extent of the impact of his absence on election results?
There is no doubt that his absence had an influence, as people look at the performance of the PUK and expect a lot without him there.
Q: Your absence from the list of candidates for the elections seems to imply that you left the leadership of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
No, I didn’t leave the Union’s leadership, but I had clear and explicit reservations within the Union regarding our business. I work earnestly and am persevering with the cadres within the union to reestablish it as a party that derives its political legitimacy from serving the public interest.
I’m not alone in this trend. There are many loyalists who see a bright history in the National Union of Kurdistan. Our loss in the election is a setback that I don’t underestimate. But in the cadres and members of the union, I see the ingredients of success. What’s missing right now in the Union is leadership that can effectively work together and pursue the political reform project. I say this is a big challenge, but it isn’t impossible. It could be achieved if there is real political will.
Q: What about the corruption within the party?
Corruption is dangerous. There are real problems plaguing the ruling political body in Kurdistan and in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The people are not satisfied with what’s happening. The party which wants to be the party of the future must lead the economic reform process and the fight against corruption and favoritism in earnest to achieve the aspirations of the people for transparent rule based on democratic legitimacy.
One of the Kurdish voter’s justifications for not voting for the Patriotic Union is that there are other parties that have clearer leadership. With them, the voter knows who is responsible for his fate. The historic leader of the Patriotic Union, Talabani, is absent. Now, there are three leaders [Kosrat Rasul, Burham Salih, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed], among whom there is bickering.
We hope for Talabani’s return. But in his absence, the people need leadership that’s not mired in infighting, but rather [a leadership] that believes in political and administrative reform that has the mandate of the people. We must be sincere with the people and ourselves. We have to take seriously the message that the Kurdish voters sent us.
Q: Your party has withdrawn from the list of the Kurdistan Alliance, which included the PUK and the Kurdish Democratic Party. Some of the leaders of the Union justified this by saying that “we want our size to be known.” Can you comment on this?
This is what the Union’s grassroots asked for. Personally, I consider it to be correct. I support it. Yes, the result turned out to be disappointing, but this result is more preferable than us being sheltered by alliances that conceal our problems from us and hide from us our actual size. Losing the election doesn’t necessarily mean the end for us. I am one of the firm believers in the alliance with the Kurdish Democratic Party. The current political phase requires it. Together we achieved a great deal, but seeking shelter in this alliance in order to whitewash our own problems is unacceptable. This alliance means imposing ourselves on the voters against their will. That isn’t democracy. It’s unacceptable. Praise be to God, the Kurdish people reached this level of awareness. The people want to deal with this power, which is based on offering programs and proposals. The voter will decide. We can bolster this throughout Kurdistan and make it into a model for Iraq and the region, God willing.
Q: Within the Union, some say that you will antagonize your party’s leadership, especially you in your capacity as Deputy-Secretary General. What’s your take on this?
This topic is not relevant now. We are currently preoccupied with the General Conference of the Union at the end of January, which holds great importance, since it will be a chance to reset the Union back to its basic principles. If we succeed in that, and we will succeed, God willing, there will be a new political phase of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. I can unequivocally say that the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan needs comprehensive, structural reform that will enable it to respond to the demands for social change and political reform in Iraqi Kurdistan. These reforms require the presence of a cooperative leadership that the people accept. This will be addressed democratically during our conference.
Q: Will the election results change your party’s position in Bagdad?
Like it or not, the results will have an effect, of course. I reject the arguments that the number of seats in parliament won’t be affected. It will be affected, and there will be other changes. Yes, the Union resonates with Kurds historically and emotionally, and perhaps with Iraqis more generally. But in the end, our strength is derived from the people’s opinions. Yes, votes and parliamentary seats are important and influential, but if people feel that we absorbed their message and that we are proceeding towards reform in order to reclaim our traditional position, then the impact will be mitigated. The Union is at a crossroads. Either a concordant leadership will take hold of the reins and pass reform or God forbid… But as I understand things, the Union is a vital party. There are many competent people within the Union who will enable the party to rise up if the political will exists.
Q: How do you deal with the general situation in Iraq?
The Iraqi situation worries us a great deal. Previously, I had taken notice. Also, during the talks which took place in Baghdad on the seriousness of the situation that we’re currently in, and that the coming stages will even more serious, especially in regards to the repercussions of what is happening in Syria. I believe that the Iraqi and Syrian situations could potentially overlap. Perhaps if we don’t settle the affairs, the two arenas could become one single war. The lack of consensus among Iraqi political groups and the erratic nature of Iraqi politics led us to major failure. This is embodied in the absence of services, the rampant corruption, and the collapse in security.
Iraq is progressing from a dangerous situation to an even graver one, going from bad to worse. Iraq is experiencing perpetual state of crisis. Every crisis creates another more dangerous one. This catastrophe has claimed the lives of many innocent Iraqis. Were it not for the high prices of oil, the Iraqi state would have surely collapsed. As we are on the cusp of the Iraqi parliamentary elections, I hope that we can wait for the opinion of the Iraqi voter who, I have no doubt, aspires to a more stable and secure life. In light of this, the next government formed in Baghdad will express what the Iraqi citizen deserves—security, safety, and comfort.
Q: You were in Baghdad as the deputy prime minister for two terms. You are aware of the nature of the situation. How do you see events unfolding there in the future?
The disaster in Iraq today is due to the fact that sectarian polarization has been exacerbated significantly. Moreover, the political leadership is scattered and dispersed. There are separate agendas within the political arena. I know that the domestic side of the political equation is very difficult. There is a legacy of destruction and social polarization from Saddam’s era. But the political performance of the ruling elite in Iraq has been miserable. They seized public funds. Failure led to failure regarding security, political, and service issues. In addition to that, these dangerous conditions are inflaming the region. Foreign intervention in Iraq, the repercussions of the war in Syria on our own situation—all of that creates significant challenges which demand visionary leadership that can defend the democratic project in Iraq. I hope that the coming legislative elections in Iraq will offer an opportunity. The voter is the master of the situation. He can decide the fate of his country and put an end to this cycle of crises.
Q: The Iraqi citizen did not feel that you were all interested in Iraqi affairs to the same extent that you and your colleagues were for Kurdistan and your own interests…
I don’t deny the existence of such a perception. However, I can say that there are Kurdish figures in Baghdad and throughout the region, like President Talabani, regional president Massoud Barzani, and prime minister of the regional government Nechervan Barzani, and others who are committed to the Iraqi national project. I was in Baghdad many times, and I can vouch for them. But there are those who strongly pressure us to only be concerned with our own issues because we are secluded in the Kurdish corner of the country, far from the general situation in Iraq. But there are some Iraqi politicians telling us, “You all have your region. What’s your business with us?”
Q: Will you all respond to such proposals and invitations?
No, it’s not necessary to respond. But I do not deny that there were failures in Kurdistan. There were more than a few. We are an important part of Iraq. We should have shown a greater interest in Iraq. Our concern with the rest of Iraq wasn’t at the level it should have been. We should understand the strategic situation in Iraq. What happens in Iraq will have a large impact on us even if we approach things from a narrow Kurdish perspective. We should be interested in the political, security, and economic situation in Baghdad in a more effective and influential way.
God willing, after the next legislative elections in Iraq, we will be able to develop new arrangements for our role in Iraqi affairs as a whole. These divisions are currently unacceptable. Our interests as Kurds lies in the success of the national democratic project. We believe that the success and prosperity in Erbil, Suleimaniyah, and Dohuk are closely linked to the flourishing of Basra, Nasiriyah, Najaf, Anbar, Nineveh, and Baghdad. Further, we should have a more influential role in aspects of the security and political situation.