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Barzani vs. Parliament; The Crisis of Legitimacy in Kurdistan

The Iraqi Kurdistan region was considered as the ‘other Iraq’, due to its relative stability and economic boom compared to the rest of Iraq. Masoud Barzani, President of Iraqi Kurdistan, has claimed that Kurdistan can be a model for Iraq. However, the region is facing its most difficult moment in history, and President Barzani has a decisive role: he can either push the region into chaos or point it towards stable democracy.

Crisis of Legitimacy

The crisis of Barzani’s presidency has long been an issue between conservatives and liberals. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), headed by Masoud Barzani, is fighting for a presidential system. According to the presidential system it envisions, the president has the power to declare war, dissolve parliament, announce a state of emergency and call an early election.

The liberal view, however, has been shared by many, including the Change Movement or Gorran, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Kurdistan Islāmic Union, and Islāmic group. The second group makes up 50+1 of the current seats in parliament. Thus, they can amend the laws without the KDP’s consent.

The issue of one man rule dates back half a century to when the KDP politburo sought to bring Mustafa Barzani under the control of the leadership council; in return Barzani fired them.

The issue came back decades later when President Masoud Barzani’s term ended in 2013. Back then, the KDP and PUK alliance in the parliament extended Barzani’s term for two more years without holding any election.

The 2013 Kurdistan Presidential law amendment limits Barzani’s term to two years, stating: “the current president will stay in office for two more years. The current president will not be allowed to nominate himself after his term comes to an end.” Parliament ratified the bill, and later President Barzani approved the amendment.

Barzani has been the president of the Kurdistan region for two terms plus two more years. However, the current law doesn’t grant Barzani any right to stay in office beyond 20th August. Gorran and its allies are determined to bring Barzani under the observance of parliamentarians. The argument for this amendment is that President Barzani has been unable to conduct radical reforms while having the highest executive authority, and yet he is not accountable to parliament.

Barzani has repeatedly promised to unify the Peshmerga, consolidate financial and security institutions, bring corruptors to justice, promote freedom of speech, and end nepotism. During his reign, no critical steps have been taken towards radical reforms; the KDP and PUK continue to control a majority of the armed forces; both security and intelligence agencies (Zaniary and Parastin) are operating independently; and no minister or other high-profile person has faced trial for corruption. As for freedom of speech, three journalists have been assassinated during his presidency, but no perpertrator has been convicted.

Apart from political rivalries, the current crisis is also about whether Kurdish leaders accept the principle of democratically handing over power. Barzani’s own personal decision has a decisive role since he has previously said he doesn’t want to hang on to power. But his recent statement about his presidential term doesn’t show any willingness to leave office.

Despite legal constraints, the KDP is insisting on keeping the incumbent as president for two more years, with or without a political consensus. The KDP seeks to justify the necessity of Barzani remaining in power as being due to the imminent threat of Daesh, the so-called Islamic State. Nevertheless, according to the law, the future of Barzani should be determined by the Kurdistan Parliament, where the KDP is not in a majority.

Speaking to a group of Washingtonians at the Atlantic Council forum, Barzani said, “I would not object whatever parliament and political parties will decide.” But, in his recent statement, President Barzani attacked his opponents and parliament by accusing them as coup planners because the current consensus in Parliament doesn’t include Barzani’s KDP. Moreover, Barzani is trying to undermine the role of parliament, especially during the current crisis. He has asked the political parties to reach a deal, instead of seeking negotiation with parliamentarians.

The fight over absolutism will continue for a while. The parliament’s attempt to amend the presidential law is just a warm-up for a heated debate on the constitution. There are possibilities of military conflict between the KDP and PUK forces, since they still report to political parties and not the ministry of Peshmerga. The fragile unified government in Erbil is on the brink of collapse. It is noteworthy that the current tensions are the result of a legal action by a civilian institution such as the Kurdistan Parliament. This time – for the first time in Kurdistan’s politics – it is the power of the law that has shaken Executive power, not a military coup.


Note: this piece was posted on earlier. 

About Sarkawt Shamulddin (61 Articles)
Sarkawt Shamsulddin is a political analyst on Middle East Affairs and co-founder of the Kurdish Policy Foundation

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