Threats to Kurdish democracy
The leader of Iraqi Kurdistan has been extending his rule as the autonomous region fumbles its way towards democracy,
writes Salah Nasrawi
The problems faced by Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region have been mounting recently, with worries that its leader, Massoud Barzani, is cancelling the presidential elections in autumn and is set to remain in power for another two years despite strong opposition from rival parties.
Last week, Barzani ended weeks of speculation by accepting a decision by the Kurdistan region’s parliament, which is controlled by his party and its allies, to extend the term of his presidency, which ended this month.
Barzani’s decision apparently torpedoed efforts by the opposition groups to limit his tenure to two terms and change Kurdistan’s political system from an insular and intolerant autocracy dominated by two political parties to a more democratic government.
On 30 June, the Kurdish parliament decided to extend Barzani’s presidency for two more years, following an agreement by the two ruling parties, Barzani’s own Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraq’s Kurdish President Jalal Talabani.
Between them, the parties hold a majority of the seats in the regional legislature.
Barzani did not sign the extension decree as required by law to turn a bill into legislation, apparently to give the impression that he was not seeking the extension. Instead, he waited for the 15-day period required by law to let any parliamentary bill automatically go into effect.
Opposition groups have been pressing Barzani to comply with the region’s law, which places a limit of two four-year terms on the post. They accuse Barzani, whose KDP and family members have dominated Kurdish politics for more than half a century, of becoming increasingly authoritarian.
The opposition also believes that behind Barzani’s decision lie his ambitions to stay in position for life and eventually pass the post to his son Masrour. The latter, a powerful member of Barzani’s party leadership and the head of its intelligence organisation, is widely believed to be being groomed by his father for the job.
However, the pro-reform Change Movement, or Goran, and two Islamist opposition parties rejected Barzani’s move and described the extension as unconstitutional. They warned that the move would spark a new crisis in Kurdistan.
The parties pledged to resort to all peaceful methods to reject the extension of Barzani’s tenure, including boycotting the parliament and taking the case to the country’s federal court in Baghdad.
“The Iraqi constitution states that Iraq is a democratic country, which means that there should be peaceful rotation of power. What we see today is that Barzani is trying to cling onto power even though his two terms in office have expired,” said Goran spokesman Mustafa Latif.
In a further setback, the Kurdistan Elections Commission has asked the government to postpone local elections in the region from 21 September to November.
The commission also decided that counting the ballots cast in the next elections would be done at the commission’s offices rather than at polling centres.
The opposition parties said the postponement of the elections would create a legal and constitutional vacuum, expressing fears that the election would be fraught with irregularities and possibly rigging.
For years, Iraq’s Kurds have been entangled in internal bickering over the regional political system.
The opposition parties have been pressing to amend a number of key items in the region’s draft constitution, such as changing the region’s governing system from a presidential to a parliamentary one, reducing the powers of the president, and the passage of a constitution that guarantees the president can only be elected twice.
The region’s draft constitution was passed by the regional parliament in 2009, but the two parties, the KDP and the PUK, that share power in the region never put it to a referendum.
On 23 May, Barzani announced that he would call for a referendum on the draft constitution despite opposition demands for amendments. His announcement sparked criticisms that he was tying to circumvent the opposition’s efforts to reform Kurdistan’s political system and make it more democratic.
The opposition groups demand that the constitution be sent back to parliament for amendment before any referendum is held.
Barzani, who has served the maximum of two terms in office, has not yet declared his candidacy for a third term, but his supporters argue that he can stand for re-election because he was initially appointed by the Kurdish parliament in 2005 and then re-elected in a public vote four years later.
His move to cancel the presidential elections and his refusal to send the region’s draft constitution to parliament for a debate has reinforced speculation that Barzani is seeking a third term in office despite objections by his opponents.
His defiant moves have raised fears of a setback in Iraq’s autonomous northern enclave, which has been dubbed an oasis of democracy, political stability and economic growth in a violence-torn country.
The reality, however, indicates that the Kurdish leader is building on his popularity as a guerrilla leader and on his party’s ability to mobilise mass support in favour of his agenda to hold onto power in disregard of opposition voices.
To that effect, Barzani is mobilising the Kurdish street against the opposition by portraying it as undermining stability and prosperity in the region.
In his latest public address he criticised the opposition groups for allegedly triggering a political crisis and for not heeding calls for a consensus to resolve the region’s political deadlock.
Kurdistan’s constitutional crisis is expected to go on brewing even after Barzani’s defiant move, and the controversy may soon escalate as the opposition to his autocratic tendencies shows no signs of fading away.
In February 2011, thousands of protesters came out onto the streets in several of Kurdistan’s main cities in what was called the “Kurdish Spring” that rivalled the pro-democracy uprisings that toppled three Arab dictatorships.
They were demanding an end to corruption and to the monopoly of power by Barzani’s and Talabani’s parties.
Now the opposition says that all options are open in its bid to defeat Barzani’s intentions to hold onto power.
Barzani’s long-term political ally, the PUK, whose partnership has remained the bedrock for peace in Kurdistan for years, is showing increasing signs of discontent, with many of its members criticising what they see as Barzani’s lust for power.
The PUK, which fears competition from Goran, has expressed concerns about Barzani’s reluctance to send the draft constitution to parliament for amendment.
On Sunday, Adel Murad, head of the PUK’s central council, told the London-based Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper that his party had agreed to extend Barzani’s term on condition that he would return the draft constitution to parliament for amendment.
“The KDP has reneged on its promises and commitments,” Murad said.
Yet, there has been no sign that Barzani is ready to relax his hold on power. On the contrary, he has used his leadership style and a common touch that courts the Kurdish populace to steer the on-going crisis his way.
In a bid to drum up public support, he recently increased the rhetoric about the Kurds seeking full independence from the rest of Iraq if attempts to resolve the disputes failed.
Last month, he made a rare visit to Baghdad for talks with Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki on the Kurdish region’s lingering disputes over resources and land with the Shia-led federal government.
The visit, and the attendant patriotic rhetoric, seemed to be intended to divert the Iraqi Kurds’ attention away from the political crisis in Kurdistan.
This week Barzani invited Kurdish leaders from Turkey, Iran and Syria for a National Kurdish Conference in Erbil in a bid to agree on a unified strategy “to achieve the rights of the Kurdish people”.
Many Iraqi Kurds say this is just another way of sidetracking debate about the region’s constitutional crisis.
Like many autocrats masquerading as democrats, Barzani is doing everything he can to cling onto power. But his desire to do so could mean the end of Kurdistan’s much-touted democracy.