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Iraqi Kurdistan is deeply divided by the power struggle between the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Iraqi Kurdistan is firmly in the grasp of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which hold the reins of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Each political party commands the region’s resources and significantly influences its internal and international affiliations. The stability of Iraqi Kurdistan has perennially hinged on the interactions and power dynamics between these two rival parties.

Since the inception of the Kurdistan Regional Government, the PUK and KDP have equally split all executive and legislative powers, though the true epicenter of control lies within the political bureaus of both parties, an arrangement colloquially termed the ‘50:50 system.’

The patronage system in Iraqi Kurdistan is primarily orchestrated by the PUK and KDP’s control over vital institutions and resources, their intricate relationship defining the governance and stability of the Kurdish region.

Within Iraqi Kurdistan, the political parties wield substantial control over various governance spheres, especially resource management, military and intelligence operations, and other critical KRG institutions. While the KRG presents a facade of unity, it is in actuality deeply divided by the power struggle between these two major parties.

Post-Kurdish Civil War in the 1990s, the PUK and KDP have continually vied to monopolize KRG politics, employing a patron-client dynamic that has entrenched a highly centralized political system in practice.

Kurdish leaders may confer with their politburos and party echelons, yet these entities operate independently of, and supersede, the KRG, thus eroding the legitimacy and efficacy of parliamentary rule within the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

Due to the lack of institutionalization during the KRG’s establishment, both parties have maintained their military forces. The reluctance of either party to cede their armed contingents, particularly the Peshmerga, to the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs suggests a latent potential for conflict.

The allocation of revenues and loyalties plays a pivotal role in the KRG’s operations. Governmental and state positions are distributed based on the 50:50 policy, obligating both parties to satisfy their respective followings to maintain their authority.

The ruling parties have cultivated extensive networks of patronage, fostering a system that benefits a select echelon and is predicated on transactional relationships. This system impairs equitable societal development, with those in influential public or political positions often bestowing advantages on their associates.

When the war against ISIS emerged in 2014, the PUK and KDP received substantial aid from the U.S.-led Coalition forces intended for military reform. Yet, this aid inadvertently fortified their patronage networks within their spheres of influence, leading to a more entrenched patronage system under the KRG’s jurisdiction.

Economically, the PUK and KDP have been implicated in the Kurdish region’s activities, including the control of oil and gas deposits and trade conduits. Their collaboration, often economically motivated, includes the shared management of economic resources and dominance in local businesses and trade, critically shaping the economic landscape of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

They have established their own commercial enterprises and business networks, encompassing sectors like construction, telecommunications, energy, transportation, and retail. These enterprises have significant sway in the local economy, enhancing the parties’ financial bases and extending their influence.

Using their political clout, the PUK and KDP have given preferential treatment and support to businesses aligned with their interests, ensuring an advantage in securing contracts, licenses, and resource access, and perpetuating their dominance in key sectors. This hegemony has stifled competition and erected barriers for other businesses and political factions, leading to a less diverse and competitive commercial environment.

Patronage and nepotism likened to an insidious disease within organizations, have become a foundational model in Iraqi Kurdistan’s party politics. This patronage has escalated in recent years, particularly to secure electoral victories.

Gorran, established by Nawshirwan Mustafa in 2009, emerged as a political party dedicated to reform and the institutionalization of the KRG, gaining traction as an adversary to political patronage and nepotism. In the 2013 elections, Gorran garnered 24 seats in the Kurdish parliament, overtaking the PUK and ascending to the second-largest party status.

Nevertheless, Gorran was not immune to nepotism, which compromised its reformist agenda. Following the death of its founder in 2017, the party’s internal practices were revealed, diminishing its popularity and leading it to adopt a patronage system to preserve its ranks, with Mustafa’s sons and Gorran’s enterprises, including media outlets, facing allegations of exclusivity.

The PUK and KDP’s model has influenced not only Gorran but also other emerging parties like the New Generation Movement (NGM), led by Shaswar Abdulwahid. Despite his populist rhetoric, Abdulwahid has faced accusations of establishing a patronage network akin to his predecessors, with NGM’s key positions reserved for his family.

Corruption has been a salient aspect of Kurdish governance, with the PUK, KDP, and other political parties sharing culpability for the mismanagement and corruption within Iraqi Kurdistan’s institutions.

The prevalence of patrimonial politics poses significant challenges in fostering robust institutions prioritizing merit and accountability, thus undermining the region’s political integrity.

Instead of legislating for the collective benefit, the elite in power secure their interests through patronage, even within their political parties. This patronage system and elite capture obstruct growth, benefitting only select groups and perpetuating economic and social disparities. The absence of a merit-based political system exacerbates Iraqi Kurdistan’s stagnation, creating a detrimental cycle that impedes meaningful political change and diminishes the efficacy of democratic mechanisms.

Shad Sherko is a journalist and researcher working in Iraqi Kurdistan with his writings and works mainly focused on the Kurdish issue in the Middle East. He holds a B.A. in Politics and International Relations and has previously worked for several local media outlets and currently working as a senior editor at the Sulaimani-based Esta Media Network.