Future of the PUK hanging in the balance in Talabani’s absence

Shwan Zulal

By Shwan Zulal:

Mutterings about what next and who will lead the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan) continue but now the main two contenders are emerging – with two different styles of leadership, representing different strands of thought within the party.

After his recent ill-health and suffering from a stroke, Iraqi President and PUK leader, Jalal Talabani, has been out of the political scene and very much missed. This has prompted jockeying for position and lobbying by potential successors for both posts of Iraqi president and the leader of the PUK.

According to medical sources the Iraqi president may not return to the political scene anytime soon as he is recovering in Germany. Given Talabani’s history and his stature in the political arena in both Iraq and Kurdistan, all politicians have been careful when talking about succession. Although the best scenario would be for the president to get better and do what he is best at, the debate about who will replace him after he gives up his position is an important one for Kurdistan and the future of PUK.

The PUK was known as the modernising force in Kurdish politics since its inception and Talabani gathered support from liberal Kurds since 1964 when he broke away from the Kurdish movement of Mustafa Barzani, the then leader of KDP who has now been succeeded by his son Masud Barzani. His departure from the KDP was because of ideological differences and his opposition to tribal structures within the political party, and his supporters largely followed him because of his new pluralistic ideas.

The absence of Talabani is the biggest test to the PUK yet, even tougher than the separation of Gorran (Change Movement), led by PUK co-founder and deputy leader, Nawshirwan Mustafa. Gorran took a large chunk of PUK supporters on the Left and now in opposition, enjoying large support in PUK strongholds.

The PUK has suffered from polarisation and in-fighting throughout its history but Talabani has been the glue binding the party together. The party’s struggle in the past was between those on the left and right. Gorran changed that dynamic when the left splintered, joining the new movement. However, the polarisation did not end there but shifted to a struggle between the centrists and the right, which had been dormant until now.

In the days after Talabani fell ill, speculation were rife about successors and many names were put forward. However, it has emerged that only two candidates remain and they represent two different forces within the party. On the right, there is the Iraqi first lady, Hero Ibrahim, and in the centre there is KRG’s ex-Prime Minister and the PUK’s deputy leader, Barham Salih.

The contrast in the choices could not be starker and they both have a completely different style of leadership and represent different ideology within the party. Hero spent many years of struggle in the mountains fighting guerrilla warfare alongside of her husband (Talabani) and she is known to be a shrewd, politically savvy but publicity-shy operator. She is the architect of the PUK public relations machine and very much controls the PUK finances, and with them the military wing.

On the opposing side, there is Barham Salih, who Joined PUK underground movement in the late 1970’s but left for the UK after imprisonment. He is an Anglophile who proved to be a very astute politician when serving as a deputy Iraqi PM and KRG PM. He is liked by the public, both in Iraq and Kurdistan, especially among the younger generation. He is a pragmatic centrist, and his business- friendly policies have enabled the Kurdistan region to attract more investment – especially in the oil sector- during his premiership.

Hero Ibrahim appears to be in pole position at this stage as she has always been one of the driving forces behind Talabani and many commentators consider Salih the underdog, largely because he is seen or portrayed as an outsider by those on the Right of the party.

The PUK is at a critical juncture because neither side can work without the other. The Right controls the military wing of the party and the Centre controls the soft apparatus of the party which can win it votes.

Not getting bogged down in the details of who is with whom and what if, the contrast in the choice is very clear. Go for the old PUK and have the veteran of the struggle against Saddam Hussein run the party with more of the same or have the new face of politics and a leader who can deliver change and try give the PUK its old identity back, making it electable.

It is natural for the competing parties and opposition like Gorran to support the old guard as a first choice to lead PUK, because it will be easier for them to tell the narrative of change and reform to the electorates and portray PUK as the tired old party. Moreover, although KDP has a Strategic Agreement with the PUK, they would be very happy with a weaker PUK and would naturally support the conservatives.

Hero Ibrahim’s advantage is her current position of being in control. She controls the PR machine and is well respected within party leadership. She enjoys the support of many on the right of the party but not so much on the left or centre. Rightly or wrongly, she had bad press for many years and that has made her a very divisive figure. She will have a difficult job filling Talabani’s shoes and become the unifying figure the PUK needs.

Barham Salih has the advantage of being the only candidate who is palatable to almost everyone, apart from his rival, and the party knows that some are holding their cards tight to their chest. He is also a popular figure who can take supporters away from Gorran, by appealing to the younger generation. When leading the KRG, Salih proved that he is capable of institutionalising government and the PUK is very much in need of such reforms to ensure its survival.

Steering the PUK towards a KDP format will not be sustainable in the long run as the parties have different support bases. Furthermore; it will lead to more polarisation and the real possibility of Salih or others breaking away from the PUK and forming a new political party or joining an existing one, taking much-needed support away from the PUK. Furthermore; the leadership must have an eye on the next election when considering the future direction.

The pattern which is becoming clear is that neither candidate has the luxury of going it alone and they both need to work with one another to preserve the PUK, if they think it is worth saving. Barham Salih does not have the full backing of the leadership but has the intellectual capacity and what it takes to face the new challenges, facing the PUK and the region as a whole. Hero Ibrahim is not as popular and will find it difficult to succeed Talabani because of accusations of nepotism and she is best at operating behind the scenes, but she has the advantage of controlling the hardware of the party and the good will of being who she is, as well as been known as a doer. Therefore, unless a compromise is found between these two different candidates, the future of the PUK will remain uncertain.

Jalal Talabani is needed as ever and we hope he will be back in action soon. But, as he acknowledged himself, age has its limitations and, therefore, those making the important decisions about the future of the party he built must remember what he stood for.

This article first appeared on Kurdish Views

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