On December 3, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) announced its nominees for the offices of prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and president of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Masrour Barzani, the son of former president Masoud Barzani, will assume the role of prime minister, and Nechirvan Barzani, the outgoing prime minister, will succeed his uncle as president. While parliament is expected to confirm the new prime minister in the coming weeks, the announcement raises new concerns about the legal status of the KRG’s presidency, which has been suspended since October 2017. It also raises questions about how Masrour Barzani, who built his reputation as the strongman in charge of the KDP’s intelligence agency and the Kurdistan Region Security Council, will exercise his expansive new powers to form a new government and lead the Kurdistan Region.

The Presidency Law of 2005, which established the office of the Kurdistan Region presidency, gave it broad powers to represent the region abroad, command its armed forces, dissolve parliament, and declare emergency rule. The law was a component of the 50-50 power-sharing agreement between the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), designed to give the KDP the presidential office of the Kurdistan Region while reserving the presidency of Iraq for the PUK. Since its ratification thirteen years ago, the scope of presidential powers became a serious point of contention, as the KDP’s power eclipsed the PUK’s in Erbil and an opposition front led by the Gorran Movement emerged demanding the establishment of a parliamentary system.  

In lieu of an agreement to delineate the powers of the office in a manner that would satisfy the KDP, PUK, and Gorran, parliament passed a series of amendments to the law. The first amendment in 2006 established the office of vice president (a concession to the PUK). In a short-term compromise between the KDP and PUK, a 2013 amendment extended President Masoud Barzani’s second term of office for two years pending the passage of a Kurdistan Region constitution that would delimit the scope of presidential authority. In 2015, the KDP sought to suppress opposition-led efforts to pass amendments curtailing executive powers thereby forcing President Barzani to step down at the end of his extended term. The ensuing crisis culminated in the president suspending the legislature and expelling Gorran from Erbil.

In October 2017, President Barzani announced that he would vacate his office after Iraqi armed forces retook the disputed territories from KRG control in retaliation for the September 2017 Kurdish independence referendum. Partisan hostilities, stoked by the divisive rhetoric of the referendum and ensuing territorial losses, threatened to destabilize the region. As the elder Barzani stepped down, a reinstated but weakened parliament filled the vacuum by passing a third amendment to the presidency law, which distributed presidential powers between Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani in an emergency effort to preserve the KDP and PUK’s power-sharing arrangement.

The amendment was due to expire once elections for a new parliament and president, which must take place simultaneously per the 2005 law, were held. However, Nechirvan Barzani decided not to hold presidential elections, forcing the KDP, PUK, and Gorran to reach another arrangement in July 2018 to extend the amendment until the next parliament can “decide the future of the office of president.” The PUK had calculated that its cooperation with the KDP to extend the amendment would facilitate a future compromise on a legal framework for the presidency that would preserve the PUK’s role as a veto player in the government. By contrast, Gorran hoped that the July 2018 arrangement would be an opportunity to enact permanent legislation in the upcoming parliamentary session, perhaps even a new constitution, to either hold the office accountable to parliament or abolish it.

Since the KDP occupies a premiership endowed with presidential powers, it no longer needs the presidency to secure its dominance in Erbil. However, Nechirvan Barzani’s nomination indicates that the KDP intends to re-activate the post—whether by statute or a constitution—to prevent the resurgence of latent power struggles between Nechirvan’s and Masrour’s sides of the Barzani family. The KDP, which holds a plurality of seats in parliament, will need the support of another 11 MPs to pass legislation to resolve the presidency question. Nonetheless, having gained seven seats in the October 2018 elections, it is considerably better poised than it was in the previous government to achieve this. By contrast, the fractured PUK and the opposition, weakened by electoral losses, are ill equipped to mount a united challenge to the KDP’s legislative agenda.

Under the current legal framework, Masrour Barzani will not only step into the role of head of government, but also of chief statesman and commander. He will also supervise the presidential cabinet, which was left intact by the October 2017 amendment and placed under the Council of Ministers in July. The prime minister-designate will assume the powers of the presidency until parliament passes legislation to resolve the office’s status, after which presidential elections can take place. The October 2017 bill requires the prime minister to share some of his powers with a deputy prime minister, a post the previous government reserved for the PUK. However, the KDP has proposed creating a second deputy prime minister post for an ethno-religious minority nominee, which would further dilute the PUK’s influence over the premiership. Moreover, consumed by internal leadership struggles, the PUK is not likely provide its deputy prime minister with enough support to capitalize on this position, nor is its nominee expected to possess the same formidable leadership style as his KDP counterpart.

While the KDP’s nomination of Masrour Barzani was not surprising, the KDP and PUK have, in the past, settled on mutually agreeable nominees through negotiation. Masrour Barzani’s nomination without consulting the PUK reveals that the KDP is now less interested in balancing power with it. Unlike his cousin Nechirvan, who is known for his ability to compromise with the PUK, Masrour is recognized as a rigid KDP hardliner who has publicly accused his political opponents of treason. In particular, hostility between Masrour Barzani and his counterpart on the Security Council, Lahur Talabani—whose faction within the PUK has come to dominate the party’s Leadership Council over the past year—has presented an obstacle to integrating KDP and PUK security and intelligence agencies.

The PUK’s weakened position in the region’s political institutions notwithstanding, the party still dominates Sulaimaniya and Halabja politically and administratively and commands nearly half of the region’s military and paramilitary forces. Therefore, it will be impossible for the incoming prime minister to govern effectively unless he acknowledges the PUK’s perceived entitlement to be consulted on key issues. And while the PUK’s internal leadership struggles present ample opportunities for the KDP to co-opt its more conciliatory elements to carry out a common agenda at the KRG level, if the new administration insists on sidelining its power-sharing partner in Erbil, it risks further empowering its rising hardline counterparts like Lahur and Bafel Talabani in Sulaimaniya.

Masrour Barzani’s nomination also reaffirms that the KDP has no incentive to placate Gorran or the Islamic opposition parties. Throughout his twenty-year tenure as head of the Parastin intelligence service and the Kurdistan Region Security Council, these institutions were responsible for violent crackdowns on protests, arbitrary arrests and detentions, forced displacements, and extrajudicial killings of activists, journalists, and members of opposition parties in KDP-controlled areas. Although he has endeavored to position himself as a statesman, the human rights violations by the security and intelligence agencies under his supervision have solidified his local reputation as a strongman who uses the region’s security apparatus to compel obedience to the KDP.

Masrour and Nechirvan Barzani’s nominations to the highest offices in the KRG demonstrate the KDP’s confidence in its ability to shape the course of the region’s political processes over the next four years without regard for established power-sharing norms or political pluralism—and with or without the presidency. Yet while the influence of the KDP’s challengers within the KRG’s political institutions has deteriorated, these institutions are weak compared with the KDP and PUK political bureaus, the real centers of power in the Kurdistan Region. Therefore, the incoming KDP-led government will be required to share power with the PUK, if unofficially, to govern the whole region and ensure stability over the next four years.

Megan Connelly is a Ph.D. and J.D. candidate at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Follow her on Twitter @meganconnelly48.