The quiet and largely peaceful Kurdish region of Iraq was last month thrust back into the spotlight by two events, firstly the somewhat contentious election results and secondly a rare Al-Qaeda attack. Coupled with an influx of refugees from Syria and continued acrimony with Baghdad, such events have once again highlighted Kurdish vulnerability amid the geostrategic games currently being played out in the Middle East.
The Kurdistan region’s parliamentary poll on the 21st saw a drop in support for the junior member of the ruling coalition, which led to cries of foul play and some rowdy protests.
The election resulted in an advance by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) the leading political grouping in Iraq's Kurdish region, while its coalition partner the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) fell behind, overtaken by Gorran (Kurdish for “change”), a relatively new opposition movement. The KDP, led by the President of the Kurdish region Massoud Barzani, secured 38 seats in the 111-seat regional parliament, up from the 30 it won back in 2009. Gorran won 24 seats done one from 25) and the PUK, which ran in coalition in with the KDP in the last election but campaigned solo this time, won only 18 seats, down from 29, with the rest going to Islamists and smaller parties, as well as minorities that have a quota of 11 members of parliament
Prior to this election, the KDP ruled in partnership with the PUK but the latter has been overtaken by Gorran as the second-largest party. Including some PUK defectors in its ranks, Gorran has benefited from anger at alleged corruption. President Barzani may now work with not only the PUK, but other partners, including possibly Gorran, to form a majority.
For its part, Gorran, which is seen to be closer to Iran, appears to be seeking a coalition with the KDP. Meanwhile, Turkey, the Kurdish region's other big neighbor, was also pleased by the election result. This was largely as the elections are seen as an assurance of stability, but also because of the KDP’s success, which means that its leader Barzani will retain his dominance.
Barzani has initiated and supported moves to peacefully resolve the Kurdish problem in Turkey and the two sides are also edging towards common ground for a solution to the crisis in Syria. In addition, he backs Turkish investments in the Kurdistan region, and has been the impetus behind Kurdistan oil exports to and through Turkey.
So, though calming signals are coming from Kurdistan's two powerful neighbors to the north and the east, dangers from other directions are beginning to press closer. The bombing attacks in Erbil last month were allegedly claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, the same Al-Qaeda affiliated group that has recently been running amok in Baghdad and elsewhere in central Iraq, targeting anything that appears to be close to Iran. Also active in Syria, these Islamists, among others, are fighting not only the Damascus government, but Kurdish groups in the country's north-east. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), wary of being sucked into the Syrian conflict, has tried to stay above the fray, while at the same time granting asylum to 200,000-plus mostly Kurdish refugees from Syria. However, Syria's government would welcome help in fighting rebels, and Iraqi Kurds if they aren't careful could be sucked into defending their brethren in Syria.
Yet the KRG's greatest challenge remains disputes with the government in Baghdad over territory, natural resources, and power sharing. These are not expected to be solved soon no matter what new government is formed. However, the September poll for the Kurdistan parliament, by being mainly orderly, was an assurance of stability. As a result, and given the increasingly skillful and elaborate diplomatic co-operation of the KRG with Kurdistan's neighbors, a stable Kurdish region appears more likely, whatever the tensions and pressures of the neighborhood.
Riad al Khouri is senior consultant to the Institute for Democracy and Election Studies (IDES) at the University of Jordan, Amman