Political Jitters Plague Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan

5 MINS READAug 13, 2015 | 22:35 GMT

A decade ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — then the country's prime minister — and Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani were sworn adversaries and would not be seen in the same room together. A firebrand, Barzani regularly pushed Ankara's buttons on Kurdish autonomy, and the Turkish government responded with airstrikes on Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) positions in Iraqi Kurdistan's Mount Qandil region. Today, this odd couple has just as much in common to keep them together as they do problems that are splitting them apart.

As we anticipated, Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) went through the motions of trying to form a government with its secular rivals in the Republican People's Party, failed, and is now headed for early elections in late November. The AKP came out of the June elections with 40 percent of the vote and needs to win at least 18 more seats to obtain a majority and form a government on its own. This will prove tricky for Erdogan.

Several factors led to the loss of the AKP's majority: a strong anti-Erdogan vote based on the belief that the party is blatantly corrupt and the president had gone too far in his authoritarian style of leadership; the rise of charismatic Kurdish leader Selahattin Demirtas and his People's Democratic Party; general disillusionment with the AKP over a weakening economy; and nationalist alienation from the AKP over the Kurdish peace process. Erdogan's hope is to win back enough nationalist votes now that the government has declared the peace process with the PKK dead and to garner enough votes from Turks willing to swallow their disdain for Erdogan for the sake of producing a coherent election result to stabilize the economy and avoid a weak coalition in Ankara.

The logic may be there, but an early election is still a risk for the AKP. Recent polls suggest the party will regain only a couple of percentage points to win a majority by a hair — not enough to be outside the margin of error. Moreover, many Turks are deeply concerned about the AKP's intentions when it comes to Syria. They see a potential intervention as a recipe for disaster at a time when the country is already confronted by a heightened risk of attacks from an array of militant groups, including the radical leftist Revolutionary People's Liberation Party-Front, the Islamic State and the PKK. Debate is underway within the AKP over whether an early election is worth the risk and whether more dramatic personality changes are needed to improve the party's chances. In any case, Erdogan is prepared to take a gamble.

Meanwhile, over the mountains, the president of Iraq's Kurdistan region is in a somewhat similar predicament. Barzani has been president of the Kurdistan Regional Government since 2005 and his term, which was already extended by two years in 2013, is set to expire at midnight Aug. 19. Barzani is angling for another extension in the name of maintaining political stability in Iraqi Kurdistan while dealing with a bigger threat from the Islamic State. However, Barzani's relationship with Erdogan risks upsetting that plan.

Barzani and Erdogan came to a strategic understanding more than five years ago that entailed Turkey investing in and helping Iraqi Kurdistan develop an independent export route in return for Arbil facilitating a Kurdish peace process in Turkey. The arrangement was intended to sway Kurdish votes in Turkey toward the AKP, provide Turkey with a steady supply of energy, enable Turkey to be the final check on Kurdish ambitions for autonomy and provide the Kurds with a stable income without having to rely on Baghdad for the disbursement of budgetary funds. As some Turkish journalists have chronicled, the economic arrangement also allegedly allowed ample room for kickbacks for the Barzani and Erdogan patronage networks.

As we highlighted early on, this arrangement was full of holes and subject to collapse. Iraqi Kurdistan is sliding deeper and deeper into debt, and Turkey has been compelled to resume hostilities with the PKK at the cost of undermining its relationship with Arbil. It has put Barzani in an awkward position. He has an economic interest in sustaining the arrangement with Turkey, but is seen at home as a traitor to his ethnic kin for backing Turkey at the same time Turkey is bombing northern Iraq in pursuit of the PKK. Rivals to Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party, such as the Gorran party and the Talabani clan's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan as well as militant groups like the PKK, have openly come out against Barzani's policies and are seizing the opportunity to rein him in. So when Barzani asks Kurdish lawmakers for yet another term extension, he is not getting an affirmative response.

As Turkey lays the groundwork for snap elections in November, we will watch Iraqi Kurdistan to see if a compromise can be reached in the next six days that would allow Barzani to remain president but require him to cede more power to parliament. Either way, both Erdogan and Barzani are in a tricky electoral bind that points to deteriorating relations between Arbil and Ankara.

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