Has the Iraqi presidency become a PUK slush fund? 25.05.2018 By Michael Rubin @mrubin1971 Source:http://www.aei.org/publication/has-the-iraqi-presidency-become-a-puk-slush-fund/ Political jockeying is well underway in Baghdad, as Iraqi political leaders seek the magic political formula which will enable formation of the Iraqi government. While a Shi’ite will take the premiership, Iraq’s most powerful post, the jockeying is on for other plum positions. Beyond key ministries—Foreign Affairs, Oil, and Defense, for example—two of the top prizes are the presidency and speakership of the parliament. For nearly a decade after post-Saddam Iraq’s first elections in 2005, Jalal Talabani held the presidency. While the speakership is more powerful, the Kurds wanted the presidency for two reasons: First, was its symbolic value given the efforts by Arab nationalists in general and Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in particular to deny Kurds’ cultural identity and their place as equal citizens in Iraq. And, second, a Kurdish presidency for Iraq neatly bypassed one of the bigger problems in Iraqi Kurdistan: the rivalry between Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masoud Barzani and Talabani, who broke away from the KDP in 1975 to form the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). If Talabani was in Baghdad, then Barzani could be the undisputed leader in Kurdistan. That division continued after Talabani’s incapacitation and eventual death. Fuad Masum, a co-founder of the PUK and a long-time PUK functionary, succeeded Talabani as president in 2014. While Talabani made the most of the position—serving as a much needed intermediary among Iraq’s disparate political groups at a time of much tension and violence—Masum has largely been quiet and, on the Iraqi political scene, a complete non-entity. His quiet, however, is expensive: In the last year, the Iraqi budget allocated the presidency about 51 billion Iraqi dinars, almost $43 million. While some of that covers salaries for immediate staff, at a time of austerity in Iraq caused by years of war and depressed oil prices, it is not clear how that money has been spent. In theory, the presidency is subject to annual audits of its spending and must provide receipts and open its books, but many Iraqis say this has not been done in several years, if ever. Instead, they accuse the PUK leadership of now using the presidency as a cash cow. While Iraqi politicians are prone to exaggeration, some Kurdish officials say that Masum takes home a $50,000 per month salary and Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, Talabani’s widow and controller of PUK finances, assumes control over the rest. In effect, the Iraqi presidency then becomes a slush fund to support the extravagant lifestyle of PUK leaders at a time when many Iraqi Kurds still do not receive full salaries or back pay. What does this scheme mean for Iraq and the Kurds? Most Kurds voted on May 12 in the hope of achieving the most favorable partnership with the federal government in Baghdad. PUK negotiators, however, appear less interested in legislative influence and power than access to finances. This is why Kurdish negotiators seem so dead-set against swapping the presidency and speakership with members of the Sunni Arab community. But even if the Kurds decide to push for the presidency, access to what has become a slush fund may be the primary motivation for the position, rather than the best position and a figure able to transform the honorifics of the post into a catalyst for communal peace and reconciliation. The KDP has put party above all else in its apparent push to put Fazil Mirani, a man with a checkered legal and moral past. But Mirani’s nomination is likely more a negotiating ploy than a serious push; Barzani can then extract concessions from the PUK elsewhere conceding. The PUK, meanwhile is reportedly pushing for Latif Rashid, Talabani’s brother-in-law, a move that would put the presidency’s budget even closer under family control. Corruption is endemic in Iraq, and the election system makes it worse. While most Iraqis condemn corruption and seek to punish the corrupt at the polls, it is the corrupt party leaders which then put together a government based on the numbers of seats won. Instantly, their motivation shifts from change to protection of the status quo. It is against this backdrop, then, that the Iraqi parliament, integrity commission, and all party leaders should insist that the right to audit be exercised, not only for the forthcoming administration but forensically for the Masum and Talabani administrations. Certainly, not even Qubad Talabani, younger son of the late president, should disagree given his frequent rhetoric about transparency. Simply put, the discrepancy between the official budget and the salaries of staff (at least those who are not ghost employees) appears too high by an order of magnitude. The Iraqi presidency should be about more than lining pockets of relatives or party leaders.