Alwaght– The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) was founded by Jalal Talabani who later became the postwar president of Iraq along with his like-minded Kurdish friends in Damascus in early June 1975. A year later, the party held its first congress, during which Talabani was picked first secretary-general to the PUK. In fact, he maintained this position since 1976 to the last days of his life. He died on Tuesday October 3 in Germany.
During years of its life, the PUK witnessed a great deal of highs and lows. The Kurdish party joined the armed uprising of the Iraqi Kurds against Saddam Hussein’s Baathist government from 1976 to 1991. It was during this period that the party initiated its connection and experience of cooperation with the Islamic Republic of Iran to fight against the Iraqi dictator. In 1991 and until 2003, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan rose to form one of the major pillars of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq’s north.
After 2003, the year Saddam Hussein was toppled by the US invasion of the country, the double-administration system of governance, introduced after discords erupted between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the PUK that each launched its independent administration in Erbil and in Sulaimaniyah respectively, in the Kurdish region collapsed. This paved the way for the party to reconcile with other Kurdish factions to form a new government in north. The PUK’s Talabani was elected first president of post-Saddam Iraq, a post he held until 2014. Now that Talabani is dead, it can be talked about start of a new stage in the PUK’s political history.
For now, Kusrat Rasul Ali, Talabani’s deputy, replaced him as the interim secretary-general. The analysts are not ruling out an outlook for the party in which internal discords broaden. Even another split of the PUK is not unthinkable. First record of partition in the body of the second largest party of Kurdistan took place in 2009, when a group of discontents broke up with Talabani orbit and founded their Gorran party, also called Change party, under leadership of Nawshirwan Mustafa.
In the early stages of Jalal Talabani’s health problems that were marked by a stroke he suffered in late 2012, the PUK was hit by further division that showed itself by rise of two distinct ideological and political factions within it. One was a majority faction led by Hero Ahmed Salih, Talabani’s wife, and the other labelled the “decision making hub”, headed by Kusrat Rasul Ali and the Barham Ahmed Salih, the second deputy to Talabani. The divides inside the PUK were serious, gradually developing to deeper stages. Finally, Barham Ahmed Salih, finding himself increasingly pushed to the sidelines, in September 17 this year unveiled a new political faction, dubbed Coalition for Democracy and Justice. He soon after resigned from his post in the party, a step brought to a close his links to the PUK.
Even now, there is a broad gap between two main factions inside the body of the Kurdish party, one represented by Hero Ahmed Salih and the other by Kusrat Rasul Ali. Ali’s camp holds the military power, and during the September 25 referendum of independence held across the Kurdish region it stood as a serious patron to the breakaway vote. Leading part of Peshmerga, a militant force acting as an army to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Ali’s circle maintains a superiority over the opposite side. The opposite faction, however, holds the economic power, with some figures such as Bafel Talabani and Qubad Talabani, the sons of Jalal Talabani and Lahur Talabani, standing in the center. This faction also operates Asayish, an intelligence agency active across the Kurdish region, as well as the Counter Terrorism Group in the region. A large part of the faction’s leadership was against the independence vote that was organized by the Masoud Barzani-led KRG.
Under the new conditions, the near future might bear tough competition between the two factions over the leadership of the party. Even a new split is likely.
Another point in relation to the future of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan is its ties and also rivalry with the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Barzani. Now, Ali’s circle that has backing of a majority of the Peshmerga commanders holds warm relations with Barzani clan. If more power is gained by Kusrat Rasul Ali in his contest against the opposite side, even closer relations could be prefigured for the two sides. But if Hero Ahmed Salih beats her intra-party opponents, the PUK and KDP will see their ties deteriorated.
What looks certain is that after Talabani’s death the PUK will suffer power erosion because of the intra-party rivalry that also yields escalation of tensions. The party has now largely lost its momentum to contest against the KDP.
Kurdistan is set to hold its parliamentary election on November 1. The results will be effective in next developments inside the party. If it wins higher percentage of votes in comparison to the current 18 percent in the local parliament election, possibility of split reduces, if not fades. Otherwise, fresh fragmentation in PUK’s structure goes even closer to happening.