Stronger Baghdad, weaker Irbil?

A Kurdish peshmerga soldier looks out over the town of Makhmour from defensive positions. (Sebastian Meyer/For the Washington Post) In the wake of widespread public protests over poor public services, weak governance and fragile public safety, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced his reform plan that seeks to overhaul the ineffectual and weak Iraqi state, ranked 12th in the Fragile States Index 2015. Abadiís proposed reforms notably include strict anti-corruption measures, the removal of party and sectarian quotas in the appointment of top state officials, the elimination of costly positions such as vice presidency and deputy prime ministries, and a significant reduction in the number of security personnel for officials.
In a state that has been searching for stable political development, economic progress and a strong national army since the 2003 U.S.-led de-Baathification agenda, these reforms seek to project a strong bipartisan political leadership and promote political institutions based on meritocracy rather than party patronages and sectarian loyalties. In response to the proposed changes, the presidency of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq announced its support for Abadi, but it warned that any reforms should be realized within the boundaries of the Iraqi constitution. As a de facto independent state, the KRG is likely to have strong reservations about those reforms that may inadvertently lead to excessive centralization. With the contentious deadline for KRG President Massoud Barzaniís term limit quickly approaching on Aug. 19, Abadiís administrative and economic reform plan can create both opportunities and challenges for KRGís internal politics.

Iraqi Kurds have always been skeptical about a stronger Baghdad. Their political memory is wary of a highly centralized and militarized rule reminiscent of Saddam Husseinís Baathist rule that targeted Kurds with campaigns of mass killings, deportations and political exclusion. Thus, the institutionalization of a strong Kurdish autonomy under a federal Iraq was inevitable in the post-2003 project of de-Baathification. Since then, the KRG has become a relatively safe haven with a flourishing economy and significant democratization, leading many to believe that a fully independent Kurdish state was only a step away.

However, serious security challenges surfaced with the sudden rise of the militant Islamic State and its territorial expansion throughout Iraq and Syria, completely changing regional power dynamics. The Islamic State forced Baghdad and the KRG government in Irbil to become more dependent on each other than could have been imagined previously.

Sectarian violence, poor governance and a weak economy in Baghdad have had direct consequences in Irbil: As investments declined, a fiscal crisis unraveled and the number of refugees and internally displaced persons skyrocketed.

When Barzani stated, ďthere is no question that confronting ISIS needs Ö unity among all the peoples of Iraq,Ē it was a sign that a stronger Baghdad would not mean a weaker Irbil. This is perhaps why Abadiís bold move to empower the central state economically and administratively has been welcomed by the KRG. Although the call to remove party and sectarian quotas in high government positions may be perceived as the re-centralization of Iraq, political and economic stabilization of central government and better public safety is more likely to reduce the security and economic risks of the KRG. Even if the Iraqi Kurds still seek an independent state, they want to achieve this goal not in times of chaos and conflict but in times of peace and stability.

On the other hand, if Abadiís reformist agenda can push the transformation of state-society relations beyond party patronages and sectarian loyalties, these effects will likely spill over into Iraqi Kurdistan. Some in the KRG may welcome such democratic consolidation with accountable political institutions, especially in the midst of the current presidential term limit crisis. Although the KRG holds free and fair elections and boasts of its functioning democratic institutions, it remains a regime in which party linkages and patron-client relationships significantly determine upward socio-economic mobility in both public and private institutions.

Corruption is also a common problem in the region. As Nicole Watts argues, Kurdish nation- and state-building is not only driven by external actors such as Baghdad but also shaped and reshaped by internal catalysts such as strong political activism against corruption, non-meritocratic institutions and poor public services and infrastructure.

The recent political quagmire and the unfolding uncertainty as Barzaniís decade-long presidency ends reflect how democratic power transitions are far from institutionalized in the region.

While Barzaniís Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) seeks to justify the necessity of Barzani remaining in power due to the turbulent political and economic conditions and imminent threat of the Islamic State, the two leading opposition parties, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran (Movement for Change), are seeking a parliamentary system with limited presidential powers. In this context, Abadiís recent push for more effective governance can further trigger the domestic political fault lines in the KRG, potentially increasing the political leverage of opposition parties.

The recent Turkish airstrikes in northern Iraq against insurgents of the Kurdistan Workersí Party (PKK)óan outlawed organization that started an armed insurgency against Turkey since the early 1980só have further highlighted these political divisions within Iraqi Kurdistan. Opposition parties have criticized Barzani for giving consent to these Turkish airstrikes in northern Iraq, despite the significant role he played in the Kurdish peace process with his closest ally, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

As the presidential crisis looms over the KRG and reignites its historical domestic rivalries, external developments in the region such as Abadiís reform plans and Turkeyís conflict with the PKK are likely to have direct consequences for political competition among the KDP, PUK and Gorran. Although there is a consensus among most Iraqi Kurds about transforming the region into a fully independent Kurdistan, the form and nature of such a state remain a highly contested issue within this politically unpredictable and unsteady region of the Middle East.

Serhun Al holds a doctorate in political science from the University of Utah. His research interests include ethnicity and nationalism, social movements and security studies with a regional focus on Kurdish politics in the Middle East. His recent academic publications have appeared in journals such as Ethnopolitics, Globalizations and Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism.