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Kurdish democracy tested in presidency row

Iraqi Kurdish parties are locked in a bitter stalemate over the fate of the presidency of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, which expired on Wednesday.

Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani’s powerful Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) is seeking an extension of its leader’s tenure against the will of four other major political parties.

These four parties are now pushing to settle the matter in parliament amid warnings that a lack of consensus might spark political unrest.

The Kurdistan Region is known for its political stability and has attracted dozens of international oil companies keen on tapping energy potential. More recently its vital contribution to the fight against the Islamic State (IS) has been grabbing international headlines.

The region shares a 1,000km (620 mile)-long frontier with IS-held territory, stretching from the Iranian border in central Iraq all the way to the Syrian border.

Iraqi Kurdish forces known as the Peshmerga – supported by US-led coalition air power – have been hailed for recent advances against the IS on several fronts in northern Iraq. They even helped fellow Kurds in Syria defend the besieged town of Kobane.

Domestic turmoil over the presidency will inevitably affect the Peshmerga as they are heavily divided along partisan lines.

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters near the Iraqi town of Sinjar
Tensions among Kurdistan’s politicians could affect the Peshmerga – the fighters who have been on the front line against Islamic State

Just last week the region’s capital, Irbil, saw the president’s party flex its military muscle in a rare display of might. Troops affiliated with the KDP drove through its streets in a long convoy, fuelling tensions.

Though Mr Barzani later banned such displays, the message was clear. The incident is one of many reasons why the issue of the presidency is seen as more divisive than any other issue in the region since the civil war that tore it apart in the 1990s.

What is at stake?

Mr Barzani has served his two terms, the maximum currently allowed. His last term expired in 2013, when it was extended by two years. But the KDP, which currently leads a coalition government that includes the other four parties, is firm on Mr Barzani staying in office.

However, existing laws provide neither a clear mechanism for electing a new president nor a legal route to keep the current one in place.

The KDP says that given the Kurdistan Region’s conflict against IS, if no agreement is reached Mr Barzani should stay in power as a caretaker president until the next election in 2017.

However, existing laws stipulate that the speaker of parliament should take over the president’s powers in the event of a presidential vacuum.

So an extension for Mr Barzani at this point would be divisive at best and possibly illegal in the eyes of many.

The four other major parties disagree with the KDP and have suggested amending current laws to make the system of governance in the Kurdistan Region a fully-fledged parliamentary system.

The changes would mean the president is elected by MPs rather than a popular vote. This will also automatically make the president accountable to parliament.

Residents visit Bekhal tourist resort in Erbil
Iraqi Kurdistan’s reputation for stability attracts tourists from other parts of Iraq – could that now be at risk?

The president’s powers would also be significantly reduced – this would mirror the political system of the federal Iraqi government, where the presidency is a largely ceremonial position.

The KDP strongly rejects the amendments and is engaged in a last-ditch attempt to frustrate the parliamentary efforts.

Tailor-made presidency

Mr Barzani himself has stayed quiet for months but recently likened the attempt to amend the law to a coup and called for parties to reach a “consensus”. His party has refused to budge on its demand for the extension of his term with full powers.

His critics say the post has been tailored to Mr Barzani and that, for as long as possible, he will not hand it over.

In fact, his presidential office is based at the resort town of Sari Rash, overlooking Irbil, which is also his personal residence and the headquarters of his party.

These are uncertain times for the Kurdistan Region: its fragile economy is heavily dependent on oil sales and payments from Baghdad.

The global decline in oil prices and tense relations with the cash-strapped federal government have prevented the Kurdish economy from prospering.

The presidency countdown has proved to be truly democratic in spirit with parties clashing and showing great determination. But additional political turmoil over the matter looks likely to continue.

Many will be hope no harm is done to the reputation and reality of the region as a politically stable oil boomtown as that turmoil passes.



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