September 2013 was the date set for voting on the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) president and parliament. The balloting was surrounded in controversy as President Massoud Barzani was attempting to find a way to run for a third term, despite Kurdish law saying that he could only serve two times. As part of this effort, Barzani was pushing a referendum on the region’s draft constitution, which would allow him the opportunity to serve up to eight more years. The Kurdish opposition was crying foul, and Barzani’s erstwhile allies the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) were also expressing reservations. The KRG president then conveniently postponed the election for the executive, and agreed to send the constitution back to the regional parliament. This may seem like a setback for Barzani, but it actually shows how easily Kurdistan’s ruling parties can manipulate the political system to stay in power.
KRG President Barzani has shown deft control of the region’s politics to stay in office (KDP)
In mid-June it was announced that the KRG’s presidential election was being delayed, and that the draft constitution was being sent back to the regional legislature. Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) made the decision. A PUK member told the press that the election law had to be changed, and the constitution amended before the vote for the president could take place. The Kurdish parties have already sent in their views on the constitution, and the parliament is ready to debate them. The opposition parties, the Change List, the Kurdistan Islamic Group, and the Kurdistan Islamic Union have all demanded that the constitution be revised before it is delivered to the public. They have complained that it would give too much power to the president, and that it was written before they held any seats in the parliament, and they therefore had no input on it. Even some members of the PUK were expressing reservations about it. This was a 180-degree change for Barzani who just the month before said that no one had the power to send the constitution to parliament, and that only the people had the right to vote on it. The KDP was pushing for the referendum to occur at the same time as the September presidential and parliamentary balloting, but that was a ruse as the Election Commission stated that it would take months to prepare for such an event. The opposition, and even some in the PUK saw this as a power play by the president to stay in office. The postponement therefore might seem like a defeat for President Barzani who was looking to run again, and was pushing the referendum, but was facing a lot of resistance. Instead, it shows how much control he has over the system. He can simply put things off until he is in a better position to get his way.
The Kurdish constitution has been in limbo since 2009. Originally, the KDP and PUK were hoping that it would be delivered to the people in July of that year when there was regional balloting going on, but the Election Commission said it wasn’t able to do all that at the same time. Then in 2011, when protests started in Sulaymaniya, the ruling parties agreed to amend it, but nothing happened. Since then there have been several other discussions about revising it, but to no avail. The main points of the constitution that appeal to Barzani is that it gives him direct control of the security forces and the peshmerga, greater power over legislation, and would allow him to run for president two more times. Now it seems as though it will be quite some more time before the people get to pass or reject it as the parliament may take months to finalize it. The KRG would then have to ask the Election Commission to set up the referendum, which would take weeks more. This was always part of Barzani’s long-term strategy then, as it was impossible to hold a vote on it this year.
The discussion about the constitution is part of the larger drive for Barzani to find a means to stay in office. The Change List has said that term limits were put in place to prevent dictatorship, and if Barzani were to serve a third term it would be the end of democracy in Kurdistan. The three opposition parties also floated the idea of running their own candidate for president to oppose Barzani, but had no idea on whom it would be or whether all of them would compete separately or together. Likewise, the PUK has been split about another term for Barzani. In response, the KDP said that since Barzani was not elected by the people in 2005, but rather appointed by the parliament, he was only elected once in 2009, and therefore can run again this year. The party has also talked about changing the election law. This is the main priority for Barzani. He is still widely popular amongst his constituency, controls a huge patronage network, and his party is more powerful than the PUK or the opposition. To him there is no reason why he shouldn’t remain in office, no matter what the law says.
The delay in the presidential election and sending the constitution to parliament for amending is part of the larger plan by Barzani to stay in power. The referendum on the constitution was never going to happen this year. Barzani was simply laying the ground for passing it in the future to allow him the chance to run two more times. Of more immediate concern is this year’s voting. Seeing the opposition he was facing about running again, he simply held off on the balloting, until he could find the right means to stay in office. Rather than a setback, this turn of events shows the power Barzani and the ruling parties have over Kurdistan. When things are not going their way, they simply change the rules. Barzani will stay in office, and the presidential vote will happen when the KDP is ready. The parliament can debate the constitution, but the opposition lacks the seats to do anything substantive, and the PUK is leaderless with Iraqi President Talabani out of the country recovering from surgery. That means it will eventually be passed, but with only minor changes, and the referendum will happen when Barzani wants. This all shows why he is unwilling to step down. Why should he is he exerts such control over the region’s politics.
Ahmed, Hevidar, “As Elections Loom, Kurdistan Region Parties Remain in Deadlock,” Rudaw, 5/17/13
AIN, “Mustafa: Nominating Barzani for 3rd term to end democracy in KR,” 5/25/13
Barznjy, Hiwa, “cooking up kurdish constitution to stay in power?” Niqash, 5/24/13
Insight Kurdistan, “Q&A: Kurdistan Region’s Draft Constitution,” 6/11/13
Kurdistan Tribune, “Gorran says ‘no’ to extension for President Barzani,” 4/9/13
- “PUK leadership ‘deceives’ members over KDP,” 6/8/13
Mahmoud, Nawzad, “Kurdistan’s Two Ruling Parties Give Conflicting Views on Regions Constitution,” Rudaw, 6/4/13
Mohammed, Shwan, “Kurdish president’s re-election plans spark criticism,” Agence France Presse, 4/14/13
Muhammad, Juwanro, “iraqi kurdish opposition: ‘we will compete with president barzani,’” Niqash, 6/6/13
National Iraqi News Agency, “BREAKING NEWS Barazani affirms he will not seek another term,” 5/4/13
Radio Nawa, “Islamic Group of Kurdistan rejects referendum on the constitution, which insists the region’s president referendum,” 5/27/13
Rudaw, “Debate over Kurdistan Region Constitution Goes to Parliament,” 6/13/13
- “Kurdistan Region’s Ruling Parties Agree on Delaying Presidential Poll,” 6/16/13
Zebari, Abdel Hamid, “Barzani Presses for Referendum On Iraqi Kurdistan Constitution,” Al-Monitor, 5/23/13
- “Iraqi Kurdish Opposition Parties Oppose Referendum,” Al-Monitor, 5/29/13
Zulal, Shwan, “Kurdish Democracy’s biggest test yet,” Kurdistan Tribune, 4/19/13