Equal No More: The Breakdown of Power-Sharing in Iraqi Kurdistan

A region divided: Prime Minister of the Kurdistan Region Masrour Barzani pictured visiting the UK in April 2022. Image: Imageplotter / Alamy

The erosion of the ‘50-50’ principle of splitting power between Iraqi Kurdistan’s main political parties could have serious consequences for the future of the region.

You have divided earth, water and fire.
What have you left?
Whom have you spared?
You have divided even prostitutes, thieves and vagabonds.
Like two giants, cleavers in hand, you have cut our homeland in two.
Roaming city by city, village by village. In each home
you have divided each hearth.

- Abdulla Pashew, ‘Brotherkilling’ in Dictionary of Midnight (translated from Kurdish by Alana Marie Levinson-LaBrosse)

For three decades, balanced division has defined the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s political landscape. Embodied in a principle known locally as ‘50-50’, the starting point for negotiations between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is an equal split. The parties make trade-offs regarding the distribution of specific positions and funding allocations within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), but relative balance between the two parties is the goal. It is a controversial approach because it institutionalises political division and excludes all but the KDP and the PUK from meaningful decision-making, but it unavoidably forms the political foundation of the Kurdistan Region.

In recent years, however, this bargain has eroded amid a growing power imbalance between the two parties. The KDP is ascendant and views itself as undisputedly the most dominant party in the Kurdistan Region. A new generation of KDP leaders wants to eliminate 50-50 once and for all, enabling the party to govern on its own.

In contrast, the PUK has been in decline for more than a decade. Nevertheless, it insists that the KDP continue to recognise its historic role as an equal power. Unable to force its rival into respecting the old arrangement, the PUK’s own new generation is turning to Baghdad to hedge against KDP dominance in the Kurdistan Region.

This piece argues that the discord explicitly created by the battle over the future of 50-50 – that is, whether the KDP and the PUK both buy into a balanced, united KRG – is key to understanding current political dynamics in the Kurdistan Region. It explains and contextualises the motivations of critical players in both parties. Their divergent visions of how politics should work are a significant reason why it is so difficult to forge even a semblance of cooperation between them. If this dynamic continues, unified institutions will further deteriorate, with serious consequences for the Kurdistan Region as an entity.

A Controversial but Foundational Principle

The principle of 50-50 developed as a way to manage the outcome of elections to the new self-governing institutions established after the 1991 Kurdish uprising. The vote essentially resulted in a tie, and the parties made a deal to divide seats in the legislature evenly, with 50 seats for each party. KDP leader Masoud Barzani was elected as president, while PUK official Fuad Masum became the Kurdistan Region’s first prime minister. This arrangement set the precedent of dividing up important positions in the executive.

By splitting power, the KDP and the PUK created a political cartel and effectively excluded rival forces

Unity broke down in 1994 and the two parties began a bitter, four-year civil war. The Kurdistan Region split into two separate zones, with the KDP controlling the ‘yellow zone’ in Erbil and Duhok and the PUK in charge of the ‘green zone’ in Sulaymaniyah and Halabja. Even after a US-brokered ceasefire in 1998, this geographic division persisted. To this day, the KDP and the PUK govern their respective areas and have trouble projecting any power into the opposite zone.

Following the US-led invasion of Iraq, the two Kurdish statelets reunified under the auspices of the KRG. In 2006, the KDP and the PUK signed a strategic agreement that institutionalised 50-50. Each continued to run their respective zones, but they split power at the level of the KRG. If a minister was from the KDP, their deputy was from the PUK and vice versa. The parties did not fully trust each other, but KRG institutions were largely able to function.

50-50 facilitated the creation of shared institutions, but it also impeded the development of a democratic and unified society. By splitting power, the KDP and the PUK created a political cartel and effectively excluded rival forces. When meaningfully challenged, they were able to co-opt opposition groups. The arrangement allowed the KDP and the PUK to control and exploit the resources of the state to create extensive patronage networks through public service employment, control of the security forces, and business contracts for party-affiliated conglomerates.

As famous Kurdish poet Abdulla Pashew points out in his poem ‘Brotherkilling’, it also bakes disunity into Iraqi Kurdish society, making it hard to establish true unity beyond transactional arrangements. It is a paradox found in many other consociational arrangements.

Breaking Down

Three decades later, the 50-50 arrangement is starting to break down from within. The necessary balance between the KDP and the PUK is no longer present. In the most recent regional election in 2018, the KDP won a plurality of 45 MPs in the 111-seat Kurdistan Parliament, leaving the PUK with 21 MPs; it also outpaces the PUK in federal elections. The KDP holds the most important executive posts in the Kurdistan Region: the KRG prime minister and Kurdistan Region president are both from the KDP, while the PUK fills secondary or largely symbolic roles, including the KRG deputy prime minister and speaker of parliament. When foreign officials come to the Kurdistan Region, their meetings with KDP members are far more visible.

The KDP’s new leadership, centred around KRG Prime Minister Masrour Barzani, is increasingly adamant that it should abandon 50-50 and adopt a majoritarian approach. From its perspective, there is little sense in splitting power equally with another party that is so obviously not equal. Moreover, abandoning 50-50 would cement the KDP’s status as the most powerful Kurdish force and reflect the power and prestige of its own self-image.

50-50 was a deeply flawed system, but its erosion is allowing the partisanship inherent in the arrangement to grow unchecked

After the 2018 election, KDP leader Masoud Barzani said in a speech that: ‘As we promised, if the KDP emerges as winner in the elections, we would go with reform and change…50-50 and the associated obstacles are no longer present. The KDP does not adhere to the way that government was formed in the past’. The KDP’s idea of majoritarianism is more about unilateralism than the fairness of democratic outcomes. Barzani’s remarks explicitly show that it views other parties as impediments to its political power and vision.

Despite this rhetoric, the KDP opted not to form a KRG cabinet alone in 2018 after 10 months of frustrating talks with the PUK, but it is likely to attempt to do so during the next government formation cycle. This would represent a full abandonment of the 2006 strategic agreement and the principle of 50-50. The KDP has been laying the groundwork for this shift over the past four years, as exemplified by recent spats over the division of positions in the Peshmerga and unbalanced funding allocations for the yellow and green zones.

The result is a force-vs-resistance dynamic that has destroyed the parties’ working relationship amid mistrust and partisan self-interest. Decision-making within the KRG originates largely from Prime Minister Barzani’s office, and the PUK recently launched a six-month boycott of KRG cabinet meetings, partly as a way to protest its exclusion. Unbalanced funding ratios between the yellow and green zones have restricted the PUK’s ability to build the kind of shiny infrastructure projects in Sulaymaniyah that are popping up in Erbil. Peshmerga reform has ground to a crawl. A fight over whether a KDP member should become Iraq’s president, a position traditionally held by the PUK, upended the formation of a government in Baghdad for a year. The Kurdistan Region was supposed to hold quadrennial elections in October 2022, but missed the deadline amid disagreements over minority seats, which the PUK argues are de facto controlled by the KDP. It is uncertain whether they will take place on the currently scheduled date of 25 February 2024.

For the PUK, the possibility of being side-lined from governance in the Kurdistan Region represents an existential threat. Exacerbated by the KDP’s efforts to secure KRG resources for itself, the PUK’s historic powerbase is withering amid internal divisions and economic and social upheaval. Unless it can find a way to deliver for the people of Sulaymaniyah, it is unlikely to maintain its grip on power. Without a willing partner in Erbil, PUK leader Bafel Talabani has increasingly turned to Baghdad, building a partnership with the Shia Coordination Framework. In the most recent federal budget, the PUK added a provision that would secure funding for Sulaymaniyah if it felt that it was not getting a fair share of the funds sent to the KRG.

For outside analysts, there are no recommendations for healing this divide that have not already been suggested in countless policy papers: Kurdish political leaders appear set on forging their own future and ignoring the advice of their foreign partners. Nevertheless, the dynamics around 50-50 provide the key to understanding what is happening in the Kurdistan Region. Neither the KDP’s approach of establishing political dominance nor the PUK’s dual response of insisting on a status it no longer merits and turning to Baghdad will serve the interests of Kurdish unity and self-government. 50-50 was a deeply flawed system, but its erosion is allowing the partisanship inherent in the arrangement to grow unchecked. This will have serious consequences for the future of the Kurdistan Region.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Winthrop Rodgers

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