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A Presidency Crisis Foretold in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq

The motives behind the political stalemate of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq are explained
People calling for a solution to the Kudistan Regional Government’s presidential crisis burn tires as they clash with the security forces during a protest in Suleymaniyah, Iraq, 10 October 2015. Photo Feriq Ferec / Anadolu Agency

The presidency crisis in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq in November 2015 is hardly a surprise. President Massoud Barzani’s term should have ended in 2013. The two main parties at the time developed a stratagem, considered illegal by many, that extended his term by two years. There was no reason to assume the president would step down in 2015.

The Kurdistan Region of Iraq is often considered a beacon of democracy in a part of the world that is in turmoil. They have fair elections, rights for the many religious and ethnic minorities, and a functioning parliament. But take a deeper look at the way the election of the president has been handled, and a different picture emerges.

Kurdistan has been suffering immense security and economic problems since early 2014, which argue against changing the leadership of the region now.
Islamic State (IS) poses the greatest security threat to the region. The peshmerga, the armed forces of Kurdistan, have so far repelled the IS attacks, but the threat hasn’t subsided.

The economic problems have everything to do with oil, originating in the refusal of the central Iraqi government in Baghdad to pay the Kurdistan Region the 17 per cent of the oil revenues to which it is constitutionally entitled. Kurdistan has tried to sell oil independently of Baghdad and has been partially successful, but, when the oil price started its slide to less than $45 per barrel as it is in November 2015, nothing remained to save the economy.

The lack of financial resources means that Kurdistan cannot pay the salaries of its public servants, including the peshmerga, who now have to work other jobs, if they can find any, during the times they are not at the battlefield. Salaries haven’t been paid for three months.

To make matters worse, Kurdistan is trying to cope with some 250,000 refugees from Syria and about one million internally displaced persons, mainly from the city of Mosul and Anbar Province, which are occupied by IS. The influx of people from outside the region puts more pressure on Kurdistan’s budget and complicates the security situation: infiltration by IS is a real possibility.

The problems are real, but so is the thin democratic veneer hiding the fact that the Kurdistan Region is essentially ruled by clans deeply rooted in tribal Kurdish society.

The presidential crisis began in 1992, when the Kurdish region was declared independent of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad. A few months after this de facto establishment of Kurdistan, presidential elections were held. The two most important parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani competed, but neither won the required minimum of 50 per cent of the votes. Neither clan was willing to grant the other power, which led to a Kurdish civil war between 1994 and 1998.

The civil war created a situation that still exists today: Talabani’s PUK rules roughly southern Kurdistan, around Suleymania Sulaymaniyah, and Barzani’s KDP rules the north, around Erbil. The tribal feud was resolved officially only in 2005, after the autonomous Kurdistan Region was enshrined in the new Iraqi constitution. Parliamentary elections were held, in both Iraq and the Kurdistan Region, and the PUK and the KDP decided to combine their power in the Kurdistan Alliance. After the Alliance secured a majority (90 per cent) of the vote (104 seats in the 111-seat parliament), the PUK and KDP divided the powerful positions between them. Barzani became president of Kurdistan for a term of four years, while Talabani became president of Iraq.

The law stipulated that presidential and parliamentary elections were to be held every four years, on the same day. In 2009 the KDP and PUK joined forces again in the Kurdistan Alliance but barely secured a majority, with 53 per cent of the votes. Massoud Barzani was voted president for his second, and legally final, term, with a landslide (70 per cent) of the vote.

Then, in 2013, in the months leading up to the parliamentary and presidential elections on 21 September, a law was suddenly rushed through parliament allowing Barzani to retain the presidency for two more years. The main parties—that is, the main clans—cookedup this plan and broke the law to make this possible.

This may have had to do with the party that caused their bloc to lose so many votes in the 2009 elections—Gorran (Change), a new party that broke away from Talabani’s PUK and took a stand against clan-based politics and corruption. In 2009 Gorran received 22 per cent of the vote, and their chances in the 2013 elections seemed even more promising. At the same time, the KDP and the PUK decided to run as separate parties for the first time. It appears that the clans in power wanted to secure their power by solving the presidential problem before it could emerge after the elections.

Gorran did indeed manage to change the balance, becoming the second largest party, with 24 seats, against 18 for the PUK and 38 for the KDP. This explains the current deadlock. The KDP wants to extend Barzani’s term by another two years, until the next parliamentary and presidential elections, but can’t push that through with just its 38 seats. Gorran and the PUK want to discuss an extra two years for Barzani only if the presidential system is replaced by a parliamentary one, a proposal the KDP won’t accept.

Both sides can seek a solution by constructing a majority with smaller parties but have so far failed to do so. The crisis deepened at the end of October, when four government ministers from Gorran were removed from their posts, reportedly because the KDP accused the party of instigating violence by angry crowds against KDP offices in several cities, protesting Barzani’s grip on power. The Gorran speaker of parliament was even banned from entering Erbil.

The stalemate keeps Barzani in power. The Consultative Council decided two days before Barzani’s term ended, on 18 August, that he could remain in power until the next elections. The legitimacy of that ruling is debated, but there is little the other parties can do. After all, not only is the presidency in the hands of the Barzani clan, but the president’s nephew, Nechirvan Barzani, is prime minister, the president’s son, Masrour Barzani, is chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, and there is a lack of institutions, such as the police, that operate independently of those in power. It seems inevitable that Barzani will rule until 2017.