Iraq’s Kurds face off in power struggle

Friday 14/08/2015
Power of incumbency

LONDON - Iraqi Kurdistan, confronting an economic squeeze as well as a continuing threat from the Islamic State (ISIS) along a 1,000-kilometre border, was due to have elections for a new pres­ident in August.

However, a political stalemate among the region’s main political blocs over the relative powers of the president and the parliament makes it a near-certainty that the incum­bent, Masoud Barzani, will remain in office for up to two more years.

That might come as a relief to Kurdistan’s allies, including the United States, who would prefer the current focus to be on battling ISIS rather than switching leadership and rewriting the constitution. A US delegation in the region recently was reported to have stressed dur­ing a meeting with Barzani’s rivals the need for continuity.

Barzani, who has held the presi­dency in the semi-autonomous territory of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) for the past dec­ade, announced in June that direct elections for a successor would be held on August 20th. Legally he is only entitled to remain in office for two four-year terms.

The announcement set up unre­solved demands from rivals of his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) for constitutional changes that would strip the presidency of its ex­ecutive powers.

The KDP argument for continu­ity was summed up in a statement proposing the two-year extension. “Kurdistan is in a historical, sensi­tive stage now,” the party said. “The international war against terrorists, changes and current condition of Kurdistan need national agreement and the unity of Kurdistan’s people and the political parties.”

Similar arguments were put for­ward in 2013 when the Kurdish par­liament voted to extend Barzani’s second four-year term by two years.

This time, however, rival par­ties have formed a common front to press for constitutional changes that would see the KRG move from a presidential system to a parlia­mentary one. In the future, they propose, the president should be elected by the 111-member parlia­ment, where the KDP has the largest number of seats but not a majority, rather than by popular vote.

The political manoeuvrings re­flect a desire to curb the powers of the KDP and the powerful Barzani, who is seen by opponents as exercis­ing too dominant a role on behalf of his party. That said, the KDP’s rivals do not have a viable candidate of their own who would stand a chance of upsetting the status quo.

The coalition of parties making the demands include the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the KDP’s long-time rival, which shares cabi­net posts with the KDP in the pre­sent coalition government. Ranged alongside it are the up-and-coming opposition Gorran (Movement for Change), which overtook the PUK as second largest party in parliament in 2013 elections, and two smaller Islamic parties.

Despite being electoral rivals, the members of this makeshift alliance have banded together to negotiate a constitutional shift that would trim the sails of the Barzani clan. At the moment, while Masoud Barzani serves as president and command­er-in-chief, his nephew Nechirvan is prime minister and his son Masrour is the region’s security chief.

In practice, the KRG is run by a two-party duopoly with the KDP calling the shots in the west of the region, including Erbil and Duhok, while the PUK is in charge in the east and its stronghold of Sulaimaniya. The parties, which fought a civil war in the 1990s, also run separate units of the peshmerga militia that is confronting ISIS. Critics complain of corruption and inefficiencies within the system and a lack of transparen­cy that has fuelled popular percep­tions that those at the top are on the take and monopolising business and economic opportunities, charges the leadership rejects.

“It doesn’t really matter whether there is a presidential or a parlia­mentary system,” said one highly placed Kurdish analyst, who de­clined to be identified because of the partisan nature of the debate. “What matters is to institute the rule of law.”

“Too much centralisation in the hands of individuals can delay de­mocratisation,” the analyst told The Arab Weekly. As for delaying a deci­sion because of the crisis facing the region, he noted: “The Middle East will always be in crisis, so there’s never a perfect moment. This whole debate should have been held two years ago.”

KDP loyalists argue that taking away the rights of voters to directly elect their president is in itself anti-democratic, while they point to the failures of Baghdad, where former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki used his post to exercise near-dic­tatorial powers, as proof that a par­liamentary system is also open to abuse. The debate has highlighted the level of popular disillusionment about the course of the region’s af­fairs. The boom years have given way to economic retrenchment, brought on by lower oil prices, chronic budgetary disputes with Baghdad and the cost of war.

Foreign companies are pulling out amid reports that young people in a region where unemployment has trebled in recent years to 18% are also heading for the exit.

With the August 20th election now on hold, Barzani urged parties in government and parliament to reach a consensus or, failing that, to allow the people to decide on the constitutional issue through a refer­endum.