“It is like a family without a father.” That is how Saadi Ahmad Bira, a senior member and strategist describes the state of his party, one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, today. The party known as the PUK for short, others have noted, is facing its gravest internal crisis in decades.
Jalal Talabani, the founder of the party, fell ill in 2012 and died in October 2017. To many observers, it seems that since he left his position at the head of the PUK, the party has been in disarray.
“It is Talabani’s absence that caused problems,” Bira told NIQASH. “One of the senior members, Barham Saleh, has walked out to form his own party and there is danger of further defections.”
Additionally, there has been very little movement in choosing a new leadership. The leadership committee of the party has held more than one meeting in order to do so, but has been unable to come to any decision. They have not been able to set a date for the party conference either.
There is still a lot of controversy about who will hold which senior position in the party. There will be fierce competition.
Since 1974, the PUK has held three major party conferences. One in 2014 was cancelled due to internal issues. Another was supposed to be held in March 2018 but this is looking increasingly unlikely.
“This is the biggest problem,” Fareed Asasard, a senior member of the PUK, argues. “If the conference in 2014 had been held as it was scheduled then our problems would not be as bad.”
Now, Asasard says, even if the party does manage to hold a conference soon some of its problems are so intractable, it seems unlikely to be able to solve them.
One of the major issues after Talabani fell ill was who would occupy his job as president of Iraq. The post was eventually passed on to Fuad Masum, with the support of Talabani’s family. Some have suggested that this was part of the reason that Saleh, another candidate for the job, walked recently.
There are also new internal party rules about who can take Talabani’s job at the head of the PUK. According to these the PUK should be led by three people now instead of just one and these three should share the powers that Talabani once had for himself. The new bylaws also make way for other leadership structures, a new council of 11 members and an advisory board of sorts, at the expense of the existing councils and committees, which are supposed to be wound up.
“The secretary general’s position will be replaced by a high commission made up of three individuals,” Latif Nirwaei, a spokesperson for the PUK’s council, explained. “Each person will share the power the secretary-general once had, supervising one each of three sectors, with each of those having nine other sectors.”
The new bylaws also say that the PUK leadership should be expanded from 41 members to 121 and that the share each province has in the leadership will depend on the percentage of votes won in the latest elections.
“There is still a lot of controversy about who will hold which senior position in the party,” Asasard concedes. “And that is only going to get worse in the future. If the post is not changed, there will be fierce competition between those who want it.”
So who might get the job, or one similar, if the position is abolished? Talabani’s sons, Qubad and Bafel, are two front runners. Bafel was born two years before the PUK was founded and now 45 years old, he had little to do with it at first. His first real showing involved him setting up the PUK’s counter terrorism forces before the US-led invasion of Iraq; he is still in charge of this apparatus. While Talabani was ill, it became possible for his eldest son to gain in influence among party cadres.
Meanwhile Qubad, born in 1977, has spent much of his political career outside of Iraqi Kurdistan. He used to live in the UK with his grandfather, then worked for Barham Saleh in the US. In 2003, he worked as a coordinator between the PUK and the US army.
He then returned to the US in 2004 and started acting as a representative of the PUK in Washington, a job that he has continued in various forms for several years. He is a deputy prime minister of the semi-autonomous northern region, the highest position any PUK official has in Iraqi Kurdistan and he too gained in influence while his father was ill.
“Anyone who fulfils the requirements of the candidacy can nominate themselves for the role,” Qadir Aziz, a senior PUK member, explained. “So the two Talabani sons have the right to do this, as does any other suitable party member. Both Bafel and Qubad have this right and the decision about who gets the job will be taken during the upcoming PUK conference, if it convenes.”
There is also a further PUK member whose counsel cannot be ignored. That is Kosrat Rasul Ali, the PUK deputy secretary-general, who is currently acting party head, as stipulated by the PUK’s bylaws.
Ali actually became ill a few months ago, shortly after Talabani’s funeral, and left for Germany to get medical treatment. But he recently returned and there is no doubt he will play a role in upcoming decisions about leadership.
Worth noting also are Ali’s sons, Shalaw and Darbaz. The former is another leading member of the PUK and the latter, the region’s minister for reconstruction. Observers suggest that Ali is likely to support those politicians inside the PUK who are happy to give his sons further opportunities.