Kurdish dreams in peril
Iraqi Kurdistan regional president Masoud Barzani’s ambitions to stay in power are proving costly for the Iraqi Kurds, writes Salah Nasrawi
Last month the embattled president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani set 20 August as the date for a direct national ballot to elect the Region’s president, only one day before his tenure comes to an end.
The decree was Barzani’s latest move on Kurdistan’s complicated political chessboard to outmanoeuvre opponents of his endeavour to win a new term in office despite restrictions by the Region’s draft constitution.
The main Kurdish political parties immediately rebuffed Barzani’s move as unconstitutional and insisted on a vote by members of the Kurdistan parliament in line with the Region’s legislation.
The Independent Election Commission, the constitutional organ entitled to arrange and supervise balloting, also snubbed Barzani’s decision to hold the election without its approval.
Negotiations to end the dispute have thus far been deadlocked, raising speculation about how the incumbent president will act in order to avoid a governmental crisis in the autonomous Region that is already embroiled in a conflict with the Iraqi capital Baghdad and a fight with the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
At the centre of the controversy is Barzani’s desire to remain president despite legal and constitutional limits. The opposition argues that Barzani should leave office when his term ends on 19 August in order to pave the way for the parliament to choose a new president.
The row, touching the core of the Kurdistan Region’s fragile political system, has put its nascent democracy to its biggest test yet. If it is left unsolved, it will have dramatic repercussions on the Region’s stability and the political future of the Iraqi Kurds.
At the heart of crisis lies the failure of the Kurdish movement in Iraq to build a genuine union after it carved out self-rule status following the defeat of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in the 1991 Gulf War and his withdrawal from the Kurdish-populated north of Iraq.
Together, the two main political groups, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by veteran nationalist Jalal Talabani, formed an administration to run Iraqi Kurdistan.
But what had been envisaged as a consensual democracy has been replaced in effect by a deeply incoherent system of power-sharing between the Region’s two main political groups, which have effectively turned Kurdistan into a shared autocracy.
In May 1992 the Iraqi Kurds held their first election to choose representatives for a legislative council. The aim was to form an administration to provide public services and to meet the basic needs of the population after Saddam’s retreat.
Having failed to achieve a majority in the Kurdistan National Assembly and form a government, the KDP and the PUK agreed to share power by dividing the seats in the government equally among themselves.
But instead of strengthening the emerging semi-autonomous Region, the process, which became known as a 50-50 deal between Barzani’s KDP and Talabani’s PUK, started to tear apart.
Gradually, the alliance started to deteriorate as the two parties fought over resources and government revenues and each of them remained entrenched in territories under its control, refusing to integrate into the union.
By 1996, the KDP, supported by Saddam’s republican guard, stormed Erbil, the Kurdish capital which was under PUK control, and claimed jurisdiction over the whole of Iraqi Kurdistan. Hundreds of their members were killed in fighting over territory and political clout.
While Barzani maintained his Party’s grip on most of Iraqi Kurdistan, PUK forces remained concentrated around the town of Sulaymaniya close to the Iranian border.
It was only after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled the Saddam regime that the KDP-PUL coalition imposed its control over the new administration in Kurdistan, which was declared a federal region by Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution.
Nevertheless, the power-sharing system soon proved to be dysfunctional. There are multiple reasons behind the agreement’s failure, including the traditional competition over power and resources and the heavy-handed rule both parties have imposed on the Region.
The underlining reason, however, was the rise of Gorran, or the Change Movement, in 2009 on a platform of political reform and combating corruption.
In the 2013 election, the group, whose leaders had split from the PUK, won the second largest number of seats in the parliament, altering the political landscape in the Region.
At the top of Gorran’s demands was to change the political system into a parliamentary one in which the prime minister would become the head of the government and the role of the president would be ceremonial.
Gorran soon succeeded in pushing for a draft constitution for the Region that curtails presidential powers and an election law that imposes a two-term limit for presidential tenure in office.
Barzani, 69, has led the KDP since the death of his eldest brother Idris in 1987. Idris succeeded their father, the nationalist Kurdish leader Moustafa Barzani, as commander of the Peshmerga forces in the guerrilla war against Baghdad.
Barzani was elected by the parliament as president of the Kurdistan Region for a four-year term in 2005. In 2009, he was re-elected by the general public according to a law passed by his Party’s majority in the parliament. The opposition have since contested the law, which they say violates Kurdistan’s draft constitution.
Under his rule, the government turned into a presidential system. The president is the head of the Kurdistan Region and wields huge powers, including commander of the military and security forces. The prime minister, who is appointed by parliament, runs many of the day-to-day duties of the cabinet.
Barzani’s last term in office, due to end in July 2013, was extended by two years by the Kurdish parliament on the grounds that the Region was not ready to elect a new president.
Growing speculation suggests that Barzani plans to stay president for life, and he has been promoting his eldest son, Masrour Barzani, as his successor. Masrour, who leads the intelligence service, already wields enormous power. His nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, is the KDP’s deputy chairman and the Region’s prime minister.
Other members of the Barzani family have also been dominant in the Region’s politics and economy.
Talabani, who served two terms as Iraq’s president after the US-led invasion in 2003 before falling sick, is also reportedly priming his 37-year-old son Qubad Talabani to take the reins.
Qubad was named a deputy prime minister in the government formed after the 2013 election. Talabani’s other son Bafel runs the Party’s intelligence department while other family members run a number of Party-affiliated organisations and businesses.
Barzani’s attempt to stay in power now seems beyond serious doubt. Everything he has done in recent weeks in relation to the presidential election crisis appears designed to buy time in order to outmanoeuvre the opposition groups into accepting his re-running for the post.
In the past, Barzani succeeded in stifling dissent either by buying off opponents or by playing for high stakes, knowing that the opposition groups were too weak to stop him from pursuing another term in office despite his long stay in power.
Barzani has been trying to settle the dispute outside the parliament in order to avoid public embarrassment. Last week, he called on the political parties to resolve the issue through “consensus,” warning the opposition that failure would “make the political and legal dispute more complicated.”
On 23 June, KDP members walked out of a parliamentary session held to discuss a bill that limited his powers. The Party’s spokesmen later accused the speaker of the parliament, Youssif Mohamed who is from Gorran faction, of inviting an Iranian diplomat to the crucial session. KDP officials have alluded to Iran’s support for the opposition in attempts to dislodge Barzani.
There is a profound sense of anxiety that the crisis of Kurdistan’s presidential election is now pushing the Region into stormy political waters.
With further escalation of the tension in the already politically fragile Middle East, there are concerns that without a peaceful resolution of the crisis Kurdistan will enter a new and unprecedented phase of uncertainty.
In a last-ditch bid to defuse the crisis Barzani sent his nephew and the Region’s prime minister Nechirvan Barzani to meet PUK and Gorran leaders to negotiate a two-year extension to his term in office.
Kurdistan has been struggling with conflicts that have led the Region to the brink of an exit from Iraq and all-out war with IS. As the expiration of Barzani’s tenure fast approaches, both sides may feel the need to stop the posturing and focus on salvaging the situation.
Yet, a sustainable solution to the Kurdistan government crisis seems in doubt unless there is a lasting deal on the political reforms demanded by the opposition.
For a traditional leader who has been using populism for political expediency, accepting a constitution and an election law that put limits on both his powers and his terms in office seems far-fetched.
For the opposition, a parliamentary political system that gives them a real voice is the only means to end the monopoly of power and wealth by Barzani’s KDP. If the opposition makes concessions on its demands, it will be discredited and weakened.