On August 19, 2015 Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani’s term ended. He remains in office however, while the ruling parties argue over whether they should reform the powers of the presidency or not. The on going dispute shows the limits of reforms in the region. To help shed some light on Kurdish politics is Sherko Kirmanj who is a visiting lecturer at the University Utara Malaysia and the author of Identity and Nation in Iraq.
1. Kurdistan’s major parties the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Gorran (Change), the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) are arguing over the powers of the presidency. The KDP wants to maintain the status quo, while the other parties would like to implement a parliamentary system and put some limits on the presidency. How much of a difference will it be if a parliamentary system is approved, and what will it mean if Barzani is still president?
First of all, I have to say that the original Kurdistan Region Presidency Act 2005 was drafted by the KDP, supported by the PUK, to serve, or to feed, the “strategic agreement” signed between both parties whereby Jalal Talabani was to become the president of Iraq and Massoud Barzani to become the president of the Kurdistan Region. The Act was designed to fit Barzani’s outfit and to make him the sole leader in the Region. It gave him an enormous amount of power and authority. Barzani used the granted and gained powers and his position to consolidate his grip on several key dossiers including foreign relations of the KRG, Peshmerga Forces, oil and gas (with the support of his nephew and son-in-law Nechirvan Barzani) and security and intelligence (with the support of his eldest son Masrour Barzani). However, after the emergence of Gorran in 2009 challenging both traditional forces, the KDP and PUK, and stressing the consequences of having all the powers in one hand, repeatedly through its media outlets. As a result of Gorran’s stance against excessive powers of Barzani as well as a result of intense intellectual debate on the advantages and disadvantages of a presidential system for incipient democracies a kind of consensus emerged among all political parties, of course a part of Barzani’s KDP, calling for changing the current political system and arrangements.
Going back to your question, I believe if a parliamentary system is approved it will make a significant difference, it may be not in the immediate term but certainly in the long run, as it will bring the decision makers and decision making process under scrutiny. At the moment nobody can question Barzani’s decisions, direction and/or policies. In a country like Kurdistan where the civil society is weak, the judicial system is powerless or biased to the ruling party, and the media vastly controlled by the government and political parties the only institution that can scrutinize the leader is the parliament. But in Kurdistan which is an emerging democracy the system is presidential which means that the parliament cannot question the president.
That is why when the four main Kurdish political parties realized that they cannot contain Barzani’s powers in these circumstances, they initiated a bill which calls for the change of the system from presidential to parliamentary whereby the prime minister and his ministers are scrutinized and questioned.
However, it doesn’t look like that the group of four can exert enough pressure on Barzani and the KDP to accept the proposal as the group is not as cohesive as it should be and as it looks. So far the KDP has been successful in its maneuvering. First it turned the one (KDP) vs. four (PUK, Gorran, Islamic Union and Islamic Group) game into quinque-lateral negotiations showing itself as a partner rather than a rival. Second, it sidelined Gorran, the most furious among the group of four. By doing so it weakened the anti-KDP coalition. The KDP’s success is certainly related to the PUK’s weak stance on the KDP’s move against Gorran because the top PUK leaders, not its middle and lower cadres, think that any win by Gorran against KDP is a loss to PUK and it will strengthen Gorran on the back of the PUK, bearing in mind that when it comes to constituencies Gorran is the PUK’s rival more than KDP.
In short the question is more to do with the possibilities of the change rather than what the change can bring.
2. Gorran was elected to office on the promise that it could reform the political system. Are its constituents going to be happy if it changes the presidency, but Barzani is still in office, and what happens if nothing happens?
Yes, indeed Gorran gained its support and votes on the back of its promises to reform the political system and eliminate corruption, nepotism as well as injustices. Of course its supporters will be happy for any kind of change. However, Gorran and its supporters are divided on this question some believe that if Barzani holds power then expecting any change in the political system and people’s condition is naive, however, there are others who believe that if we can have a political system that is accountable to the parliament then even if Barzani stays is not a big deal. Having said that, many people, except KDP members and its supporters, believe that Barzani’s presidential term is a legal question and should be dealt with in a legal framework. They believe that Barzani’s term ended and he should not be allowed to remain in power as president unless the political system is changed where he can run for the parliament hoping that he may get the chance to form the government hence become prime minister.
Similar to your previous question it is not about what happens if Barzani stays or not but whether Barzani can be removed or not. I personally don’t think that Barzani can be removed simply by relying on internal pressure even if the pressure amounts. I think if Erdogan’s AKP (a close ally to Barzani’s KDP) wins elections in Turkey in the coming election in November the chances of relinquishing power by Barzani will be even more slimmer. At the same time unless the U.S. government directly or indirectly pressures Barzani, he may not leave office willingly. Internal pressure is not enough. In fact I think internal pressure may backfire and result in dividing the Region along the 1994-1998 civil war lines. This is because of several reasons, first is that the group of four are not united when it comes to Barzani’s presidential term. Gorran and the Islamic Group seem to be more pressing on this issue but the PUK and the Islamic Union are ready to compromise in return for political gains and for cutting some of Barzani’s powers. Second, the group of four’s power base in the provinces of Erbil and Duhok is not that strong to create enough pressure on KDP, bearing in mind that it is Erbil which is the capital of the Region not Suleimaniya where the protest movement is currently based. Third, the KDP’s use of carrot and stick policy has been working in the last decades. Basically what I am trying to say is that the political space for opposition, be within the KDP’s rival groups or outside, is extremely limited if not completely suppressed and silenced.
Regardless, if the current move by the group of four resulted in nothing and if Gorran is the only one to be kicked out of the government then I think in the next election Gorran will be the biggest winner and the PUK the prime loser. As far as the other two Islamist groups concerned as the Islamic Group’s stance against KDP is firmer then it takes a large portion of votes from the Islamic Union. The KDP may not perform as it did in the last elections. Generally speaking people are angry at the KDP because of its authoritarian tendencies and because of its failures to protect large portions of the disputed areas that the Kurds gained after the collapse of the Iraqi army in those areas. Hence, even if nothing happens, I expect in the next elections the balance of power to be tilted in favor of the political groups who kept strong position against the KDP and Barazani. But this doesn’t mean that a landslides will be seen. What it means is that the KDP and PUK will certainly lose grounds, unless they conduct vote rigging on large scale, which is anticipated!
3. The same can be asked about the PUK. Their position vis-à-vis the KDP has deteriorated in recent years, and Gorran has cut into their base. Will they get any boost if they can reform the presidency, and what if nothing changes?
As I said in the previous question, the PUK’s position against the KDP is not as firm as Gorran and the Islamic Group. The Islamic Union is known for being moderate traditionally, so nothing new here. What needs to be highlighted here is that the PUK’s position is untenable. On one hand its relation with the KDP is multifaceted and they share common interest in sharing the revenue that they get from Baghdad and what they get from the direct sale of oil. Both the KDP and PUK have hundreds of thousands of party employees, yes employees, that they live on the salaries paid by the KDP and PUK. If this is cut for any reason, be reform in the current corrupt system or as a result of tensions with the KDP, then this may lead to loss of constituencies by both parties as most of the support and vote that the KDP and PUK get are coming from these group of political employees. If the PUK sides with the KDP it loses votes, this is for sure. On the other hand the PUK relations with Gorran has always been tense, except for the last year as the absence of Talabani tilted the balance of power towards the KDP. Hence, if the PUK sides with Gorran against the KDP it may lead to the loss of financial benefits that the PUK gains from keeping a blind eye on the corruption in the oil sale, which is by in large in the hands of Nechirvan Barzani of the KDP. That is why the PUK wants to grip the stick in the middle out of fear of losing constituencies on one side and money on the other. Therefore, the PUK would like to see the current political system changed because it wants to limit the ever growing power of the KDP and Barzani as the president. So it wants to make sure that Barzani or his substitute is brought to scrutiny or its powers curtailed. But at the same time it doesn’t want to pressure the KDP fear of backfire.
4. How much of a push for reform is coming from the voting public in the KRG or have they been appeased by the patronage systems run by the ruling parties?
I think a large number of the population has had enough of the KDP and PUK, and that is why people came on the streets in February 2011 simultaneously with people in other countries in the region as part of what is known as “Arab Spring”, and early this month also. However, the iron fist that is used by the authorities and the failure of the Arab Spring to bring democratic changes in the region, except in Tunisia, made people generally hesitant to press for radical changes and/or call for the removal of the regime. There is a lot of anger out there not only because of corruption and nepotism but also because of using the wages and salaries of the public servants in dirty political games. People believe that the reason the KRG is not paying its employees is not that there is not enough money but rather it is Barzani and the KDP that uses this to press other political groups, and the public in large, to extend Barzani’s term for another two years. The people are aware of the amount of oil exported legally and illegally but they see no return. The current protest was more to do with this dirty political game than anything else.
Having said that, as I said previously, the KDP and PUK have appeased thousands of people through a patronage system. In fact I can say without hesitation that the KDP and PUK are more like a factory than a political party. They have thousands of people enlisted on the payroll for doing almost nothing but be a part of voting during elections to the KDP and PUK to keep them in office.
This has created a lot of problems for Gorran and the other two Islamist parties as they cannot compete with the KDP and PUK to feed their “employees”. You may not believe me that a few days ago somebody made a comment on one of my Facebook posts, which is normal, but the comment was so biased so I wanted to check his background by looking at his Facebook profile. When I looked at his profile I found in the field which say “works at” he has written “works at KDP”. This is not a one off case, indeed, I am well aware that hundreds of thousands of people are getting regular monthly salaries for just attending, and most of the time not even attending, political meetings and gatherings. As long as they vote for the party they get their payments, or they are enlisted on retirement benefits coming out from the public purse.
5. Finally, Barzani remains president even though his term is up, and no one is talking about wanting him out. What does that say about the power of personality politics and the rule of law in the KRG?
I don’t share the view that no one is calling for Barzani to go. In fact as far as I am aware the majority of people want him out but in the Kurdistan Region, power and money are the arbitrators not the people; people are threatened, elections are not fair and clean; the media is controlled etc… etc… that is why Barzani is in power. Does this mean that nobody wants Barzani to stay, no, there are money people even outside the KDP powerbase, some people believe it is not the right time for handing of power to somebody else while ISIS is on the door steps threatening the Region, and while things are not settled with the central government.
In regard to personality politics, all that I can say is this is the Middle East. On the one hand, politicians personalize everything, and on the other hand people like, admire and support authoritarian leaders, be charismatic or with no charisma at all, like Barzani.