The Kurdish political scene is also in deep crisis. In September last year, Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani carried out an "independence referendum" in the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan. The central government and its army intervened. As a consequence, Kurds were forced to clear "contested areas" around the autonomous region of Kurdistan, including Kirkuk. Following this serious setback the two "historic" parties of Kurdistan faced sharp criticism, first and foremost from younger, new parties. These traditional parties, which have thus far dominated the Kurdish political scene, are the KDP ("Kurdish Democratic Party") and the PUK ("Patriotic Union of Kurdistan").

Both have their own armed unit of Peshmerga fighters. They have now joined forces and want to stand in the elections together, to defend their dominance to date. This although they are being held responsible for the loss of Kirkuk and other contested areas.

Toxic atmosphere in Kurdistan

Groups of "new" parties are now standing against them. Their influence is growing, also primarily due to increasing levels of resentment against the traditional parties. Kurdish coffers are empty, meaning neither civil servants nor Peshmerga fighters have received any wages for months. Demonstrations by state employees and other citizens demanding payment of their wages are put down by the police and Peshmerga fighters loyal to the traditional parties.

The ones to profit from this toxic atmosphere are the Kurdish opposition parties, first and foremost "Gorran" (Change), founded in 2009. Gorran is primarily active and successful in the southern regions of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Former president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, Massoud Barzani (photo: picture-alliance/Anadolu Agency)
Politically side-lined: despite significant resistance at home, Massoud Barzani – then president of the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan – went ahead with the Kurdish referendum on independence on 25 September 2017. Although the huge majority of Kurds voted in favour of secession, the central government in Baghdad launched a military offensive in response, reclaiming nearly all the land occupied by Kurds that did not fall within the boundaries of the autonomous region. Barzani was forced to resign as a result

How all this will impact upon the elections and their outcome is currently highly uncertain. Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region for 12 years, leader of the KDP and the "strong man" in northern parts of the country, stood down following the Iraqi army intervention. But he does not appear ready to exit politics for good.

After the voting, the alliance garnering the most ballots will be invited to negotiate with other alliances over the formation of a governing coalition, with which to achieve a parliamentary majority. The Shias will be divided up into radical pro-Iranian groups that align with the current "Fatah" alliance, and those forces oriented towards Iraq, sympathetic to the alliance led by PM Abadi.

Pro-Iran or with the U.S. and Saudi Arabia?

A third direction among Shias will be embodied by Muqtada al-Sadr. He has made it clear that he is willing to work together with all formations set on stamping out corruption. Regardless of religious affiliation. But it's unlikely that Sadr will receive the most votes, meaning he will also not be able to form a coalition government.

In Arab nations and the rest of the world, the focus is primarily on whether pro-Iranian or pro-Iraqi forces will be in power in the future. This depends on which side Iraq takes in the Saudi-Iranian supremacy struggle. And it also depends on whether the Iraqi army continues to work with the Americans or whether the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will be in charge in future.

The Iraqi system is pretty much set up to enable corruption to flourish. So Muqtada al-Sadr's demand for reforms is more than justified. Politicians in the "Green Zone" are so caught up with their own interests that they barely have the time to consider their nation. They themselves consume any available funds. Politicians and their patrons are primarily concerned with grabbing profitable positions within the administrative machine. In this game of relationships and connections, insights of an expert nature are becoming incidental.

Arnold Hottinger

© Journal21

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

Arnold Hottinger is one of Europeʹs leading experts on the Middle East. Based in Beirut, Madrid and Nicosia, he worked as a correspondent for the Neuer Zuricher Zeitung for over thirty years. He has also published numerous books on the politics and culture of the Islamic world.

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