Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is facing a political crisis over what to do with President Massoud Barzani. His term ended on August 20, 2015, but he remains in office. His Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is pushing for a political deal between party bosses to extend his term for a second time, while the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Change list wants to limit the president’s powers and change the KRG to a parliamentary system. The two sides refuse to budge from their positions leading to a deadlock, which work’s to Barzani’s advantage.
The KDP, PUK and Change List are at loggerheads over President Barzani. Even though his term expired the KDP insists that he is still the president, especially now as the region faces the dual threat of the Islamic State and a financial crisis. The PUK and Change counter by pointing out the law says the speaker of parliament Yousif Mohammed should be the acting president for 60 days until a solution is found. This has led to two dilemmas. First, the KRG like the rest of Iraq has weak rule of law, so what it says on the books is often ignored, which is why Mohammed will unlikely be recognized as the interim president. Second, the two sides can’t agree on what to do next. The KDP wants a deal between the parties like the one that extended his term for two years back in 2013. If one is not made the party claims that Barzani should stay in office until the next elections in 2017. The PUK and Change want a new presidency law passed, which would dramatically curtail the powers of the office and make the president elected by parliament instead of the public. Neither side appears willing to budge.
The reason why the parties cannot move forward is that they have almost the same number of seats in parliament. In 2013 the KDP won 38 seats. The smaller parties such as the Communists, the Turkmen, Christians and Armenians could be in its camp as well giving Barzani up to 14 additional votes. The PUK and Change List have 42 seats together. That leaves the three Islamic parties, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, 10 seats, the Kurdistan Islamic Group, 6 seats, and the Kurdistan Islamic Movement, 1 seat as the swing votes. The opposition has claimed that the Islamists are in its camp, but that doesn’t appear to be completely true. The KDP has lobbied the Islamic Union extensively, and that seems to have split the party. Only 3 out of the party’s 10 parliamentarians signed a petition calling for a special session of the legislature on August 19 to discuss Barzani’s future. Then on that day only half of the Islamic Union members showed up meaning there was no quorum to conduct business. As long as those parties are split there’s unlikely to be any progress on the matter, which suits Barzani.
Barzani is likely to remain president of the KRG no matter how this drama plays out. For now he holds de facto power, and can play divide and conquer with the Islamist parties until he reaches a favorable outcome. If the KDP wins the argument Barzani will agree to some nominal reforms to appease the other parties and go about his business as usual. If the PUK and Change win he can still probably pull off a majority in parliament to remain in office, while working around any limitations the two parties try to place upon him. As of now there are no term limits on the presidency. The draft constitution calls for only two terms for the office, but that has not passed. Barzani has used that as well to stay in power showing his great agility to play the system to achieve his goals, which is to stay in power until he feels like stepping down. This whole affair shows how limited democracy is in Kurdistan, and how laws can be bent and broken to suit the powerful.
Abdulrahman, Kareem and Zagros, Roman, “Iraqi Kurdistan democracy tested in presidency row,” BBC, 8/21/15
Coles, Isabel, “As Iraq splinters, Kurds’ own unity put to test,” Reuters, 7/9/15
eKurd, “Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament fails to convene a meeting for lack of quorum,” 8/19/15
Millet, “PUK Approves Barham Salih’s Project,” 8/11/15
NINA, “The leadership of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) rejects the project solution by Barham Salih,” 8/12/15
Osgood, Patrick and Tahir, Rawaz, “Barzani remains in office after term expires,” Iraq Oil Report, 8/20/15
- “Kurdistan presidency controversy deepens,” Iraq Oil Report, 8/18/15
- “Presidency crisis engulfs Kurdistan,” Iraq Oil Report, 8/10/15
Salih, Hemin, “Kurdish Parties to Establish Supreme Political Council to Solve Presidential Crisis,” Bas News, 8/18/15
Shafaq News, “KDP: Barzani will remain in office with full powers after August 20,” 8/11/15