Kurdistan drama worsens
The gap between the Kurdistan region’s president and his opponents may be too great to bridge, writes Salah Nasrawi
Talks over a deal to end the crisis over the election of a new leader to replace the embattled Kurdistan regional President Masoud Barzani broke down yet again last week, raising the stakes in the volatile semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq.
Violence erupted in several towns after the collapse of talks aimed at breaking the impasse between Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and four of the region’s main political groups. Protesters set the KDP’s offices ablaze and demanded that Barzani leave office.
On 8 October, after nearly five hours of negotiations in Sulaimaniya, talks that had been billed as a last attempt to close the gap between Barzani’s KDP and its opponents came to a halt. Those opposed to Barzani are refusing to renew the president’s tenure.
Barzani’s last term in office, which ended 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. Despite restrictions by Kurdistan’s laws on a third term, Barzani refused to step down after his tenure ended on 19 August.
The Kurdistan government crisis started when four parties — the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Gorran (Change) Movement, Kurdistan Islamic Union and Kurdistan Islamic League — rejected a decree by Barzani setting 20 August as the date of a direct national ballot to elect the region’s president. They argued that the move was unconstitutional.
They insisted that Barzani abide by the region’s draft constitution, which limits the presidency to two terms, and called for a vote by members of the Kurdistan parliament to choose a new president in line with the region’s legislation.
Barzani, however, has rebuffed the opposition and decided to cling to power. Representatives of the political factions who have been meeting since August have failed to resolve the conflict.
Officials said the failure of the last-ditch talks show that the differences between the KDP and representatives of the four opposition groups are irreconcilable. Opposition groups want to see Kurdistan ruled by a parliamentary system and not by the current presidential system which gives the president enormous power.
On Saturday, Rabon Tawfiq of the Gorran Movement told local media that the KDP has backed down on “concessions” made earlier by its delegates on Barzani’s presidency. Tawfiq did not elaborate but said the KDP still insists that the region’s president be elected directly by the public and remain supreme commander of the armed forces with the final word on security issues.
Among other preconditions, which the opposition groups have vehemently rejected, was giving the president overall power to veto legislation by the parliament, Tawfiq said.
Other officials said the KDP representatives turned down a proposal by the opposition that a new election law should explicitly state that the president of the Kurdistan region should ask the bloc that has a majority of members of parliament to form the regional government.
They told local media that Barzani insists on the current system, which allows the president to appoint a prime minister from the party that wins the largest number of seats in the elections. The KDP, which is in control of two of the three main provinces in Kurdistan, has often won the largest number of seats in regional elections.
The collapse of the talks has created fears that the crisis in the Kurdistan presidential elections could enter a perilous new phase that could push the region into further chaos.
Within hours of breaking the news of the failure of the negotiations, hundreds of demonstrators took to the streets in cities across the Kurdistan region to denounce the deadlock.
In Sulaimaniyah, the power base of the PUK and Gorran Movement, protesters clashed with police in front of the hotel where the negotiators were staying. On Friday, demonstrators in the city of Qalatdizeh attacked a KDP office and set it on fire. Two people were killed and five others were wounded in clashes with office guards.
The protests continued throughout the week, with demonstrators shouting slogans that Barzani should leave office and attacking and torching several offices of the KDP in the Sulaimaniyah province.
In retaliation, KDP supporters attacked Gorran Movement offices in the Kurdistan regional capital of Erbil and in Dohuk, both of which are under the control of Barzani’s party.
Meanwhile, the bickering has polarised Kurdish politics and compounded an economic crisis triggered by drops in revenues caused by the cost of battling the Islamic State (IS) terror group and low oil prices.
Many in Kurdistan blame the financial crisis, which has pushed the region to the verge of bankruptcy, on Barzani’s administration. In addition to the power struggle, the government has been fraught with corruption, cronyism and inefficiency.
Many civil servants have not been paid for three months, and thousands of private-sector businesses have remained closed because of the financial crunch.
High unemployment and poverty have driven thousands of young Iraqi Kurds to leave Kurdistan in recent years, seeking asylum in Australia, Europe and the United States.
Once hailed by the Western media as a flourishing oasis of democracy and peace in the war-torn and sectarian-divided Iraq, Kurdistan has increasingly been moving towards autocracy.
Criticism has been mounting over Barzani’s heavy-handed rule and his family’s monopoly on power in the region. The opposition says that the Barzani family is corrupt and that it uses the security forces to crack down on political opponents.
Many analysts believe that by refusing to negotiate the terms of the presidential elections in good faith and prolonging the electoral crisis, Barzani plans to stay in office for an unlimited period and probably for life.
Speculation is high that Barzani is promoting his eldest son, Masrour Barzani, as his successor. Masrour, who leads the intelligence service, already wields enormous power. His nephew and son-in-law, Nechirvan Barzani, is the KDP 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.
In April, Ali Hama Saleh, a Gorran Movement member of the Iraqi Kurdistan regional parliament, wrote that thousands of loyalists and cronies have been receiving pensions and salaries from the government without being eligible for the payments.
Writing in Al-Mashhad Al-Akheer (The Last Scene) newspaper this week, Kurdish opposition writer Georges Kolizadah accused Barzani of pushing the region “towards total collapse.”
“Barzani is the main culprit behind this accumulation of problems and the cause of driving the Kurdish people into these dangerous problems,” he wrote.
Kolizadah said the region’s economy and finance systems are on the verge of collapse. He said that corruption, graft, the embezzlement of government property, the control of oil revenues and the real estate sector, and inefficiency in government are the causes behind Kurdistan’s political and economic crises.
Critics have accused Barzani’s administration of stifling free expression, the independent media and the democratic process in the region. Last week, the international human rights group Human Rights Watch accused the KDP’s intelligence service of “stamping on peaceful dissent.”
It accused the Kurdish authorities of detaining activist Esa Barzani “solely due to his peaceful criticism of the ruling party” and said Barzani has been in detention since 14 August after he had posted pictures in support of rival Kurdish leaders Abdullah Öcalan and Jalal Talabani.
On Monday, the crisis took a sharp turn when Nechirvan Barzani removed four ministers from his cabinet and the speaker of the parliament was barred from entering the capital. The dramatic steps were seen as an escalation that threatens to destabilise the region.
In a statement, the Gorran Movement described the move as a “political coup” and accused Barzani’s KDP of trying to instigate “a civil war” in the region.
As this article went to press, the Kurdistan political crisis has entered uncharted territory, with no signs of attempts being made to stop the decline.
With the presidential elections stalemated, the government dysfunctional, the parliament suspended and violent protests on the streets, Kurdistan’s unrest is just starting and the region’s crisis is set to worsen.
This article first published in Al Ahram Weekly on Oct. 15, 2015