Bafel Jalal Talabani has been re-elected as president of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) at the party’s much-anticipated fifth congress, which began in Suleymaniyah, Kurdistan Region of Iraq on Wednesday. Against a backdrop of political intrigue and potential shifts in the Kurdish political landscape, the event has attracted considerable attention.
The PUK, one of the two main political rivals in Iraqi Kurdistan, held its congress in the presence of several prominent figures, including Kurdistan Region President Nechirvan Barzani and Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid, as well as leaders and representatives of Iraqi and Kurdish parties, ambassadors, consuls and representatives of several regional and international countries.
The meeting aimed to discuss and approve the PUK’s draft constitution, which introduced several important changes, including a proposal to reduce the size of the political bureau to 10 members, to establish three different councils and to restructure the Supreme Leadership Council to consist of a president and 50 members.
Traditionally, the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leadership would issue statements wishing the PUK congress well. However, KDP leader Masoud Barzani and deputy leader Masrour Barzani refrained from commenting on the event. This conspicuous silence has raised questions about the possible deepening of PUK-KDP tensions.
However, Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Nechirvan Barzani, leading the more diplomatic wing of the KDP, not only attended the congress but also delivered a goodwill speech. His attendance underlines a deepening intra-KDP divide: over the past five years the politicians that lean to a more accommodating stance have steadily lost influence within KDP ranks, according to the Citadel.
Freshly re-elected PUK President Talabani gave an impassioned speech as congress opened. “We are entering a new phase and uniting the party even more. Our goal is to strengthen the PUK and serve our people.” He also emphasised the party’s commitment to defending freedom of speech, women’s rights and the rights of minorities and youth.
The PUK’s fifth congress also received a message of support and solidarity from London-based Socialist International (SI). In an open letter to Talabani and PUK leaders and members, SI General Secretary Benedicta Lasi conveyed her organisation’s shared commitment to the PUK’s vision of a more inclusive, democratic and just society.
Internal conflicts, escalating tensions with KDP, and Turkish attacks on Sulaymaniyah
The PUK congress was held ahead of schedule at a time of intra-party conflict, ongoing tensions with the KDP, and increased Turkish attacks, particularly on the PUK stronghold of Sulaimaniyah.
Some senior members of the PUK boycotted the congress, citing possible divisions within the party, while others failed to attend citing health issues.
Hero Ibrahim, mother of Qubad and Bafel Talabani and daughter of PUK co-founder Ibrahim Ahmed, was among those unable to attend the congress due to ill-health.
In July 2021 the PUK experienced internal turmoil when Bafel Talabani, one of its co-chairs, expelled his cousin Lahur Talabani from the party and its leadership, citing abuse of party positions, including activities such as smuggling and extortion.
Tensions between the KDP and PUK have been exacerbated by disputes over elections and local revenues, as well as recent developments with Turkey.
The PUK’s close affiliation to the Kurdish parties of northern and eastern Syria contrasts with the KDP’s close ties with Turkey, which considers such parties ‘terrorists’. Turkey has launched a series of attacks in Sulaimaniyah. Recently, three peshmergas from the PUK’s Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG) were killed in a Turkish attack.
The KDP’s increasingly aligned relationship with Turkey in the midst of these tensions has further exacerbated conflict with the PUK.
The KDP has extensive trade, political and security ties with Turkey and has been accused of providing various forms of assistance to the Turkish military in its operations against Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas in northern Iraq, including intelligence on the whereabouts of Kurdish guerrillas and logistical support.