Clockwise from top left: Barham Salih, Hoshyar Zebari, Shilan Fuad and Rizgar Mohammad Amin. Image Credit: Agencies

Damascus: Forty-four figures have nominated themselves for the Iraqi presidency. It’s the largest number of candidates in the history of the republic since 1958.

According to a post-2003 agreement between the political forces in Iraq, the presidency goes to a Kurd, the premiership to a Shiite Muslim, while Sunnis get the speakership of parliament. The only exception was Ghazi Al Yawer, the interim Sunni president of 2004-2005.

The two major Kurdish parties had agreed the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) would name the Iraqi president, while the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) would get presidency of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), also known as Iraqi Kurdistan. The PUK’s historic leader, Jalal Talbani, held the Iraqi presidency from 2005 until 2014, and was succeeded first by Fuad Massum (2014-2018) and then by the incumbent Barham Salih.

Prominent Kurds

That rule continued to apply until 2018, when the KDP put forth a nominee for the Iraqi presidency, challenging the PUK’s right to the post. The KDP candidate, Fuad Hussein, didn’t succeed, however, and was subsequently appointed as foreign minister.

During last October’s parliamentary elections, the KDP won 63 seats of the Chamber, while the PUK received only 17.

Here is the list of the most prominent presidential hopefuls:

Barham Salih (age 61), a top Kurdish politician and the current president of Iraq, nominated for a second term by the PUK. Previously he had served as prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government between the years 2001-2004 and then again in 2009-2012. Before that he was deputy prime minister of Iraq, first under Eyad Allawi (2004-2005) and then under Nouri Al Maliki (2006-2009). He is also Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the American University in Iraq.

Hoshyar Zebari (age 69), a ranking Kurdish politician, nominated for the presidency by his party, the KDP. The University of Essex-trained Zebari had served as foreign minister during the years 2005-2014, then as Deputy Prime Minister and finally as Minister of Finance until 2016, when he was forced out of office by a parliamentary vote of no-confidence, over alleged accusations of corruption. He is considered the main contender to President Salih.

Shilan Fuad (age 42), a newcomer to Iraqi politics, she works at the Iraqi Defence Ministry and has erroneously been reported to be the daughter of former president Fuad Masum. She is the first woman to run for office, but might withdraw her candidacy in the upcoming hours, due to threats from Iraqi hardliners.

Rizgar Mohammad Amin (65), a prominent judge and political independent, he headed the Special Tribunal for Saddam Hussein until he stepped down in January 2006, 12 months before the court sentenced Saddam to death and had him executed in December 2006.

Power dynamics

On January 9, 2022, Iraq’s new chamber held its first session, which witnessed an alliance between the two Sunni parties, Azm and Taqqadum, and the Sadrist bloc that controls 73 out of 329 seats in Parliament. They teamed up with the KDP, renewing the tenure of Taqqadum leader Mohammad Al Halbousi as speaker of the Iraqi Parliament. The PUK was surprisingly absent from the chamber on that day, and visibly left out of the Sadr-KDP alliance. In return, Hakam Al Zameli of the Sadrist bloc was named deputy first speaker and Shakhwan Abdullah of the KDP, as second.

That alliance, and its results, triggered an angry response from all-Shiite parties that had tried to confirm themselves as the largest bloc in Parliament, known as the Constitutional Framework. They had once controlled a parliamentary majority during the years 2018-2021 and their bloc includes the Fatah Alliance of Hadi Al Amiri, the Nasr Alliance of ex-Prime Minister Haidar Abadi, and the State of Law Coalition of former premier, Nouri Al Malki.

Finding common denominators in their joint opponents, they very much might team up with the KDF in the not too-distant-future.

Now stands the possibility the Sadrists will nominate a member of their party for the premiership, a nomination that will be backed by the two Sunni blocs and by the KDP. In return for that backing, Muqtada Sadr will find himself obliged to support the KDP’s candidate for the presidency, being Hoshyar Zebari. If Zebari makes it to the Presidential Palace, then he would be the first KDP president of Iraq since 2005.

For him to win, he would need a two-third majority in Parliament, says Harry Istepanian, an independent economic analyst and senior Fellow at the Iraqi Energy Institute. Speaking to Gulf News, he explained: “Both Zebari and Saleh might fail to reach that threshold. In that case, the KDF and PUK would have to agree on a compromise candidate, an independent who neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites will object.”