Since 2003 the Kurds have been considered kingmakers in Iraq, playing a key role in keeping the country together while negotiating Kurdish nationalist demands in Baghdad.   The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has taken advantage of the weak central government, an ambiguous Iraqi constitution, and high-level positions to establish its place in a federal Iraqi state.  Yet, relative Kurdish leverage in Iraq has weakened over time as Arab groups have become increasingly organized and represented across the country.   In response to the declining influence that became apparent in the March 2010 parliamentary election results, the KRG has reaffirmed its commitment to “one Kurdish voice in Baghdad.”  This strategy might temporarily unify the fragmented Kurdish parties and consolidate Kurdish nationalist interests, but it limits opportunities for sustainable coalition-building and creates new challenges for opposition groups inside the northern region.

The March 2010 parliamentary election results have clarified a trend in Kurdish politics: KDP-Barzani family power is deepening in the Kurdistan Region but overall Kurdish leverage in Iraq is diminishing.  The imbalance of seats won within the Kurdistani List—30 for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and 14 for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—as well as challenges by the opposition Change movement (Gorran, which won 8 seats), has made the strategic agreement signed between the two parties in May 2006 virtually defunct.   The PUK might have won 5 seats in Kirkuk and continues to share a significant but undisclosed part of the KRG budget, but it is increasingly becoming a burden for the KDP as a joint power-broker.   In effect, the power-sharing arrangement has tacitly become one in which the KDP tolerates the PUK but has assumed the lion’s share of power, resources, and authority in the region. 

While the KDP has consolidated power in Irbil, the Kurds have lost leverage in the Iraqi state. They have diminished their representation in the Baghdad parliament from 58 to 57 seats while the total number of seats has increased from 275-325; they also have lost seats on important provincial councils.   Further, the KRG has lost its veto power through the Presidential Council, and in particular, Iraqi president and Kurdish PUK leader Jalal Talabani.  Even if Talabani is re-elected to the presidency, according to the constitution, the president’s role in the next Iraqi government will largely be ceremonial. The prime minister, who is unlikely to be a Kurd, will become more powerful.  Nor do the Kurds have effective regional veto power.  Although the constitution states that amendments to the constitution can be refused by the majority of two governorates, there is still no regional law or council that has been created to enact this veto right.     

These trends have implications for Kurds’ options as coalition partners in Baghdad.  Indeed, with ongoing economic dependency on the central government, vested financial interests in the petroleum sector, and unresolved nationalist claims, the Kurds will attempt to negotiate with the fractious Iraqi parties, just as they have done since the 2005 elections.  The KRG is likely to continue to use the Iraqi constitution as the basis for territorial gerrymandering, or delineating the administrative jurisdiction and boundaries of disputed areas.  Additionally, given the concern by most parties about forming a government in a timely manner, the unlikelihood of Maliki’s State of Law party allying with Iraqiyya, and the total distribution of seats in Baghdad—with no party winning more than 91 seats—the Kurds are in a good position to become part of a larger Iraqi coalition government.   In fact, the Kurds are currently prepared to join the State of Law coalition or any other group that promises to recognize their national rights in the Iraqi state.   Still, the Kurds are aware of the obstacles ahead and have adopted new measures to strengthen their bargaining power in Baghdad.  Under the direction of Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Region and head of the KDP, the Kurds have produced a “Roadmap to Baghdad” that provides guidelines for how they should approach the central government.  While the four Kurdish lists, or political group representations (Kurdistani List, Gorran, The Islamic Union and Islamic Group), which have merged into one Kurdistan coalition group, are free to ally with other groups on non-national issues, they may only do so as long as the alliance does not contradict the initial road map.  The Kurdish lists are therefore committed to acting in unison on key national issues: the constitution, budget, peshmerga, the hydrocarbons law, Kirkuk, and the disputed territories.  As representatives of the Kurdistan Region and members of the coalition group, the lists also are accountable to the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament and Masoud Barzani for their actions and voting patterns in Baghdad, even if they represent opposition groups in Irbil.  

Despite efforts to act as a unified nationalist block, the Kurds have their own house to put in order before a meaningful coalition can be sustained.  Gorran still has unresolved issues with the PUK and KDP and has indicated that it “cannot be a Kurdish brother in Baghdad if it is looked upon as an enemy in Irbil.”  Interparty rifts remain on the hydrocarbons law, Kirkuk, and the presidency of the Kurdish coalition and Iraq.  Also, while the KDP and PUK want to assure control of the Kurdish coalition group and keep Talabani to lead the country, Gorran argues for a rotating coalition presidency and rejects Talabani as Iraqi president.  Yet, with provincial council elections in the Kurdistan Region scheduled for October 2010 and criticisms by some supporters for having sold out to the Kurdistani List, Gorran has its own challenges ahead.  The opposition group has to prove its commitment to Kurdish nationalism while maintaining its distinction from the KDP and PUK.   

As the final election results remain undetermined, the Kurds will continue to jockey for power and influence in Baghdad, seeking alliances with Iraqi parties they think will assure a minimal level of Kurdish autonomy in the next Iraqi government.  But the Kurds’ myopic focus on securing their nationalist interests first sends a clear sectarian message that may ward off potential non-Kurdish allies.  It also overestimates Kurdish autonomy in Iraq and shows the political bottlenecks that are likely to continue when the next Iraqi government is eventually formed. 

Denise Natali is the Research Centers Director at the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani and the author of The Kurdish Quasi-State: Development and Dependency in Post-Gulf War Iraq (Syracuse University Press, July 2010).