The Kurdistan Region, aided by robust economic performance and a commitment to democratic consolidation, continues to raise its global profile. Kurdistan’s democratic credentials, political stability, economic development, and national cohesion stand out in its region, and within Iraq itself. This focus on internal democratic development has been complemented with a pragmatic and confident foreign policy that stands eager to engage regional and global partners. These elements, and the institutional stability they provide, have created an important foundation for the international business community that is successfully establishing itself in the Region. Kurdistan has employed its vast hydrocarbon wealth for both economic and diplomatic ends, establishing itself as a major economic actor in the region and beyond. While some challenges persist, including disagreements with Baghdad and the ongoing civil war in Syria, such issues do not appear to threaten Kurdistan’s continued growth or stability.
A stable governing coalition composed of the Kurdistan Region’s two historically prominent parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), has overseen much of Kurdistan’s recent growth. Parliamentary elections in September 2013, however, saw a decline in popular support of the PUK, and a dramatic rise in popularity of the Gorran (Change) Party, an opposition reformist offshoot of the PUK. While the KDP remains the predominant party in Kurdistan and will invariably carry the most power in the regional government for the next several years, it will have to work increasingly hard to maintain influence amid a growing opposition and a weakened partner.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is the autonomous governing body of the Kurdistan Region, and holds constitutionally recognized authority over the governorates of Erbil, Duhok, and Slemani. Kurdistan’s central legislative body is the Kurdistan Parliament (KP), a 111-member, unicameral body of lawmakers. The President appoints the Prime Minister from the largest bloc to form a government. The cabinet is then approved by the Kurdistan Parliament.
The President of the Kurdistan Region is elected directly by the people of Kurdistan. The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the Peshmerga (who are the Regional Guards). The President, as established by the KP in 2005, is elected every four years, and is legally restricted to serving two terms. Masoud Barzani, the current president, was first elected in June 2005 by the Kurdistan National Assembly, the precursor to the Parliament. Electoral reform implemented in 2009, however, changed policy such that the President is now elected by popular vote. President Barzani was reelected in July 2009, receiving over 70% of the popular vote. The President’s Chief of Staff, Dr. Fuad Hussein, heads the President’s secretariat, known as the Diwan.
The KRG’s governance of the Kurdistan Region is largely autonomous from federal Iraq. Iraq’s Constitution recognizes the KRG and the KP as Kurdistan’s governmental institutions and identifies the Peshmerga as the Kurdistan Region’s military force. The Constitution also gives the KRG authority to exercise legislative and executive authority in certain areas, including allocating the regional budget, security, education and health policies, natural resources management, and infrastructure development.
Additionally, Kurdistan has an independent judicial system. The system is headed by a Supreme Court of Cassation, which decides cases of the highest importance, as well as cases that have been appealed through lower courts. The system also has a number of lower courts that decide on commercial and criminal disputes.
The KP has yet to finalize a constitution to institutionalize the KRG’s structure and policies. While the KP approved a draft constitution in June 2009, it is still awaiting the necessary approval by popular referendum to become operational. The revision of the constitution has been a source of heated debate in the Parliament. The draft constitution was to be put to a popular vote in the 2009 elections. In the run-up to the September 2013 elections, a majority of the KP voted to extend President Barzani’s term by two years to 2015, as legislative wrangling over revisions in Kurdistan’s constitution continued.
The Kurdistan Parliament dates back to 1992, following Kurdistan’s uprising and assertion of autonomy. The Parliament serves as the central legislative body of the Kurdistan Region, and demonstrates its enduring commitment to the democratic tradition. A democratic and transparent legislative process, as carried out by the Kurdistan Parliament, differentiates Kurdistan from many of its neighbors, and provides a foundation for its political stability.
Members of the KP are elected through a proportional representation electoral system. In the 2013 elections, a candidate needed to get over 19,000 votes, based on the electorate turnout, to enter the Parliament. The Parliament houses 11 functional committees that oversee legislative issues within their purview. The annual KRG budget, for example, is submitted to Parliament by the Ministry of Planning, and is then reviewed by the parliamentary Committee for Finance and Economy and Committee for Legal Affairs before getting approved. In addition to legislating Kurdistan’s laws and budget, the Parliament is also responsible for ratifying agreements with foreign entities and working with the federal government. The KP’s legislative history has been impressive, including the passing of the 2006 Investment Law, Kurdistan's hydrocarbon law, laws protecting women, and developing the draft constitution.
To encourage diversity, 11 seats in the KP are automatically assigned to parties representing minority groups in Kurdistan. Of those eleven, five seats are allocated to Turkoman representatives, five to the Chaldean, Assyrian, and Syriac representatives, and one to the Armenian representative. In addition, a legal minimum quota is in place to ensure that at least 30% of the seats in the KP are held by women.
Parliamentary elections are held every four years in accordance with the Region’s electoral law. Voter turnout and political participation in Kurdistan are relatively high: the 2013 elections had a 74% turnout of eligible voters.
Political Parties and the 2013 Election
The Kurdistan Parliament has, until recently, been dominated by a coalition of the two main Kurdish parties: the KDP and the PUK. President Masoud Barzani leads the KDP, with Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani serving as the Vice President of the Party. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani leads the PUK, with Kosrat Rasul, Vice President of the Kurdistan Region and Dr. Barham Saleh, former Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region, serving as Deputy Secretaries of the Party. This coalition, organized under the “Kurdistani List,” won the regional elections in 2009 with over 70% of the popular vote. However, in the recent elections of September 2013, traditional voting patterns changed. With nearly 38% of all votes cast, the KDP received the largest amount of votes of any political party. Consequently, the KDP now holds 38 seats in the 111-member KP.
2013 Election Results
|Political Parties||Votes||Percentage||Seats||+/- (2009)|
|Kurdistan Democratic Party||793,984||37.8%||38||+8|
|Patriotic Union of Kurdistan||350,500||17.8%||18||-11|
|Kurdistan Islamic Union||186,741||9.5%||10||+4|
|Kurdistan Islamic Group||118,575||6%||6||+2|
|Islamic Movement of Kurdistan||21,834||1.1%||1||-1|
|Socialist Democratic Party||12,501||0.6%||1||-|
|Kurdistan Communist Party||8,681||0.4%||1||+1|
|Turkoman Development List||5,259||44.2%||2||+2|
|Erbil Turkoman List||1,951||16.4%||1||-|
|Turkoman Change and Reform List||1,926||16.2%||1||+1|
|Turkoman Movement List||1,753||14.7%||1||-|
Assyrians, Syriacs and Chaldeans (Minorities)
|Chaldean, Assyrian & Syriac Alliance||5,730||43.5%||2||-1|
|Abna Rafidain List||1,090||8.3%||1||+1|
|Barwan Isan Mergoz Batros||531||-||1||+1|
As a result of his failing health, Iraqi President Talabani has been largely absent in terms of his PUK activities, thereby creating a leadership vacuum within the party. In response to these and other issues, in the 2013 elections a number of the party’s supporters defected to a rival reformist block, and the PUK received only 17% of all votes. The party now occupies only 18 seats in the KP—a sharp decline from the 29 seats it held in 2009. In contrast, the recently formed Gorran (Change) Party (which advocates reformist policies) has now emerged as the second largest political party in the KP, earning 24% of all votes and a total of 24 seats in Parliament. Led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, Gorran is most strongly supported in the eastern governorate of Slemani. This governorate is the electoral homeland of the PUK, the party with whom Gorran was formerly affiliated.
The Kurdistan Islamic Union finished fourth in the elections, receiving 9% of the vote and 10 seats in the KP, and the Kurdistan Islamic Group received 6% of the vote and six parliamentary seats. The Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, the Socialist Democratic Party, the Kurdistan Communist Party, and the Toilers Party each earned one seat, respectively.
Political stability, a rapidly developing economy, and strengthened democracy have given the KRG the opportunity to pursue an energetic and broad foreign policy. The KRG’s dynamic foreign relations are crucial and integral components of the Kurdistan Region’s economic and social development. The KRG’s primary body for directing its foreign affairs is the Department of Foreign Relations (DFR), which is headed by Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir. The DFR’s foremost objectives are to raise the global profile of the Kurdistan Region, improve the Region’s international ties with various governments and international organizations, and present the emerging opportunities in the Kurdistan Region to regional and international actors.
The KRG’s foreign policy vision has paved the way for the establishment of various diplomatic representations in Kurdistan. A total of 26 countries have diplomatic presence in Erbil, with Canada and China recently announcing plans to establish diplomatic missions. Multinational bodies, including the EU, UN, ICRC, Japan International Cooperation Agency, and the Korea International Cooperation Agency also have offices in Kurdistan. This significant diplomatic presence demonstrates the confidence that foreign governments place in the Kurdistan Region. Additionally, the KRG’s presence abroad has also grown significantly since 2007. The KRG currently has representative offices in 14 countries.
Kurdistan is determined to work closely with its immediate neighbors in order to contribute stability, security, and prosperity to the region. In accordance with its policy of open door diplomacy, the KRG has been able to forge strong ties with its immediate neighbors in recent years. “We want to develop our relations with our neighbors based on mutual respect, understanding, and benefits. Thanks to our leadership, we have been able to prove to our neighbors that we have no intention whatsoever to harm their interests,” Minister Falah Mustafa Bakir told IIG.
The best example of the Kurdistan Region’s evolving relations with its neighbors is its relationship with Turkey. Flourishing trade between the two, an influx of Turkish investment, and energy agreements have paved the way for increasing geopolitical cooperation, and helped overcome decades of tension. This expanding partnership, built upon mutual economic interests, was symbolized by the visit of Turkish PM Tayyip Erdogan to the Kurdistan Region in March 2011, the first such visit by a Turkish leader. Increasing trade volumes between Turkey and Kurdistan ($8.4 billion in 2012) empirically demonstrate the importance of this developing relationship.
Kurdistan’s vast hydrocarbon resources have raised the Region’s global profile and positively impacted its foreign relations.The KRG employs the Region’s natural resources for the social and economic development of the people of Kurdistan. In order to increase this development, the KRG is actively increasing investment in the sector, as well as the Region’s channels for hydrocarbon export. In accordance with Kurdistan’s increased investment in energy export, the KRG has completed an oil pipeline, which will allow the Region to export crude oil to European markets through Turkey’s Ceyhan Terminal. The completed pipeline will soon begin exporting high volumes of oil. Additionally, a second, similar pipeline is in planning stages and, when operational, will further increase oil and gas export potential substantially.
As a forward thinking government, the KRG has been able to shape the Kurdistan Region into a gateway to Iraq, not only with its economic development, but also with its active foreign policy vision. Moving into the future, the KRG intends to maintain a dynamic foreign policy based on developing good relations with its neighbors and resolving issues through dialogue. This will allow Kurdistan to strengthen its ability to develop prosperous relationships with foreign capitals throughout the world.