Several weeks ago Iraqi Kurdish MPs got into a fistfight in Parliament. The cause? Debate over whether the current president could run for another term, legally. Critics are asking: is this a democracy or a dictatorship?
As the Iraqi Kurdish continue to fight extremists from the group known as the Islamic State, and as they continue to argue with the federal government about their share of the national budget, there is another crisis looming on the political horizon. On August 20, 2015, the official term of office is over for the semi-autonomous northern region’s president, Masoud Barzani.
Barzani, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s two most powerful parties, who is widely seen as a strong leader, has already managed to extend his term in office once. The move, which came in August 2013, involved what some would describe as clever use of legislation and others would consider undemocratic and verging on dictatorship.
The same debate is now surfacing again as locals argue about whether now is the right time to lose a strong leader and bring in someone new. Over the past few months other political issues had been put on the back burner as the different Kurdish factions achieved a level of unity, as they were forced to react to the threat presented by the Islamic State, or IS, group takeover of parts of Iraq. Now that consensus is disappearing as scrappy politics return.
In Iraqi Kurdistan, as in many countries, there is a special law that gives every person the right to be president for a limited number of consecutive terms; according to current laws in the semi-autonomous region, the president of the region may only remain in power for two terms. A term is four years. And Barzani completed his two terms in the middle of 2013.
Shortly before Barzani would have had to step down, the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament, which was dominated by Barzani’s own party and an ally, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), with whom the KDP traditionally shares power, invited him to extend his term for two years. This was due to a kind of legal loophole that said that because elections were not properly recognised in 2005, that the 2009 elections actually resulted in Barzani’s first term.
The decision to allow Barzani to stay on as President was heavily criticised by opposition parties. And the law that allowed Barzani to remain in office [included] a line that said no extension would be possible after August 2015. However yet again, critics say, there’s political trickery afoot.
The Constitution for Iraqi Kurdistan has never been completed and it contains an amendment that says the following: “The term of the President of the Region is four years”, and “the President can nominate himself for a second term, as of the day the Constitution enters into force”. This means that if the Constitution [is] endorsed in its current form, Barzani will have the right to nominate himself for another two terms in addition to the two and a half terms he’s already served.
Understandably this has caused a lot of arguments in Iraqi Kurdistan already. The two sides to the argument can be broadly defined as those who would defend the democratic process and those who want to defend Iraqi Kurdistan’s interests.
“We need to pay attention to the democratic process in our own society,” argues Ahmedi Mala, a Kurdish writer and lecturer at the University of Castilla-La Mancha in Spain. “We should not only confront this problem but also all other problems related to this subject – starting from the selection of the local school’s headmaster and ending in high ranking positions like this one. When we demand that the people in power change, this should not only apply to Kurdistan but also to Baghdad,” Mala told NIQASH.
And Mala believes that the argument many use as justification for continuing Barzani’s term is moot. “There are many local people who could handle this job well and who could deal with the crises that Iraq, and Iraqi Kurdistan, are facing,” he says. “If crisis is the justification given for extending Barzani’s term, then the whole Middle East would suffer [from having the same leaders for a long time].”
Additionally Barzani’s critics have pointed out that the President hasn’t actually done much to bring the two halves of Iraqi Kurdistan closer together – half of the region is dominated by Barzani’s party, the KDP, and the other half by the PUK.
Contrasting these kinds of opinions, there are those locals who firmly believe Barzani is the only “strong man” for the current job and that politicians need to find some legal way to keep him on as President.
The region’s Prime Minister – and also Barzani’s nephew – Nechervan Barzani has already stated that this is his opinion. “When it’s decision time though, people will set aside their differences and agree on what is right for the country,” Nechervan told journalist Amberin Zaman. “The politicians, be they from Goran [the main opposition party], the PUK, the Islamic Party, they all know that and the people know that. For the stability of Kurdistan, Masoud needs to stay.”
“The current circumstances require the presence of a man like this, with his political and social qualities,” argues Badran Ahmad Habib, a well known Kurdish journalist and head of Aras Publishers. “Kurdistan is fighting against the Islamic State and nobody knows how long this war will go on. Kurdistan is also fighting with Baghdad and suffering a financial crisis as a result. These factors are actually obstacles to the democratic process and should be resolved before there’s any new presidential election.”
Habib does think that Iraqi Kurdistan’s democratic process should be respected – eventually, when the various crises have been resolved. His argument is that it takes time to mandate new leaders in this part of the world; he gives the example of Jalal Talabani, leader of the PUK who suffered a stroke and has been absent from local politics, while still holding his job, albeit ceremonially, for so long that his party has suffered. “Half of Kurdistan was paralysed,” Habib told NIQASH. “If Barzani goes, the other half will be paralysed. The charismatic leader plays an important role in this part of the world.”
The political machinations are continuing and for now the only thing that is clear is that August will be a tough month for Barzani.
This piece was republished via Niqash.org. Kawa Sheikh Abdullah is a journalist from Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan.