The main political forces of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) are debating President Massoud Barzani’s term extension and considering what kind of governance model is a viable option for the Iraqi Kurds for the time being.
Barzani has been in power since 2005 and his term will officially end on August 20. He was first elected to the regional presidency in June 2005, by the members of Iraqi Kurdistan parliament and re-elected in July 2009 by a popular vote in the first direct presidential election of the region.
He has also been the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) since 1979, succeeding his father Mullah Mustafa Barzani as the head of the party.
His term should have ended in mid-2013 according to the KRG regulations, however, backed by his arch rival Jalal Talabani’s party, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), he was able to extend the legal two-term limit in his favor for two more years, invalidating much of the opposition at the parliament in Arbil.
In mid-June 2015, the high election board of the KRG announced that the presidential election could not be held on August 20 due to inadequate budget and limited time, the pro-Barzani media outlet Rudaw reported. The president of the board Handrem Muhammad said that the elections will be delayed, but he did not state when they will be held.
Currently, there is a serious debate in the region surrounding Barzani’s presidency and the election process. The KDP defends that the president of the region should be elected by popular vote, while the PUK and other parties like the Goran [It means change in Kurdish] Movement and Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komela Islam) argue that the president should be elected by the parliament.
Basically, the confrontation of the Iraqi Kurdistan political forces seems to illustrate a disagreement of the main parties on the governance model of the region, where Barzani and his supporters are on the side of a presidential system while his rivals seek to reduce his presidential powers by strengthening parliamentary system.
As a result, current proximate balance of power and strong differences of opinion in the region create a deadlock in the politics of Iraqi Kurdistan.
In a latest development, Barzani has called in a statement on August 9, a referendum to break the deadlock and leave the ultimate decision to people, to choose the way the president should be elected, Turkey’s Anadolu Agency has reported on Monday.
Barzani previously invoked essential unity of the Kurdish factions in the region saying that “Kurdistan is going through an exceptional and important phase. Now more than ever before, we need our ranks to be united,” referring to the rapid developments on the Iraqi political landscape in a speech in late March.
ISIS as a common enemy, seems to be a serious cause for the region’s Kurds to have a united front. The group has risen in the Middle East as a new actor which threatens not only Arab leaderships but also Kurdish ones.
Iraqi central government has lost a third of its territories to ISIS in June 2014 after the group launched its northern Iraq offensive, claiming Mosul, the second most populated city in the country. The ISIS march also helped the KRG claim Kirkuk from the Baghdad government which has chaotically withdrawn from the north following the attacks.
However, in August 2014, ISIS also attacked the Kurdistan region targeting Sincar and the regional capital Arbil and the group succeeded in capturing Sinjar which is mostly populated by Yazidis, a Kurdish speaking non-Muslim community.
Barzani reportedly led the Kurdish Peshmerga counterattack personally in Sinjar against ISIS in December 2014. His forces supported by People’s Protection Units (YPG), the militant wing of Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), and US-led coalition air bombardment reclaimed Sinjar and surrounding areas eventually.
The ISIS attack on northern Iraq and following Kurdish counter offensive have indeed indicated to Barzani and the regional leadership that disunity could not be a choice for the very survival of the region. But the fierce leadership competition of Iraqi Kurdistan has revived after the ISIS threat was temporarily overcome by the Kurdish-US-led coalition alliance in the region.
Barzani’s peshmerga forces also helped the YPG militants to successfully defend the northern Syrian border district of Kobani against a four month-long ISIS offense. However, the YPG forces and Barzani’s peshmergas have many disagreements for the governance of northern Syria by the inclusively PYD-controlled “cantons.”
In November 2013, the PYD announced three autonomous areas or “cantons” which are Afrin, Jazira and Kobane from the west to the east following withdrawal of Syrian regime forces from mostly Kurdish inhabited areas in the region.
Beyond the northern Syrian “cantons” the divisions of Iraqi Kurdistan have a deep-wounded history dating back to the political factionalism of 1960s. Before splitting from the KDP, the PUK leader Talabani was a prominent member of the party and more significantly his father in-law Ibrahim Ahmad was the secretary-general of the party.
However, Ahmad and Talabani’s leftist stands had “a stormy relationship” with the father Barzani’s conservatist views “leading armed confrontations between their followers.”
Mullah [It means cleric in Persian] Barzani’s family is strongly rooted in the Naksibendi order of sufi Islam and his grandfather was the one who established his first religious base in the northern Iraqi district of Barzan where the family derived its ancestral name.
The opposition between the groups had eased for a short time from 1991 to 1994 following the First Gulf War and withdrawal of Iraqi army from the region by former president Saddam Hussein under American pressure.
Barzani and Talabani were able to agree to lead the region jointly and establish the regional assembly of Arbil the first time in this period. However, the PUK and the KDP could not succeed to share power in the long-term and eventually Kurdish civil war broke out in 1994.
Another external intervention could persuade both leaders to cooperate again. In 2003, after the US-led occupation of Iraq changed the whole equation of the country’s politics. Talabani became Iraqi president while Barzani headed the presidency of the KRG according to a new accord between the Kurdish leaders.
Despite the agreement of the leaders, the parties have continued to control their respective regions. The KDP peshgermas control northwestern areas of Iraqi Kurdistan while the PUK peshgermas are dominant in the southeastern areas of the region.
Meanwhile, Talabani has been sick since mid-December 2012 and practically out-of Kurdish politics. His party was shaken following a major split by the former PUK commander Nawshirwan Mustafa who has established the Goran movement in 2009 and now has more deputies than his former party PUK.
However, the split in the PUK does not apparently favor the KDP politics, making the regional politics even more complicated. Therefore, Barzani now has a much more difficult terrain to deal in order to extend his presidency or save his party’s power base in the region.
New governance model?
The KDP has 38 deputies in the 111-seat Kurdish regional parliament as opposed to the Goran’s twenty four deputies and the PUK’s eighteen deputies. The Islamic block of the region seems to be a decisive factor for both the choice for the governance model of the Iraqi Kurdistan and the future prospects of Barzani’s political career.
The Islamic Unity Party (Yekgirt) is being represented by ten deputies and the Komela Islam has six seats in the regional parliament. There have been conflicting reports from the region on how both Islamic parties will vote on the issue.
Sheik Salar al-Hafeed, a prominent member of Kurdish Berzenci family from Sulaymaniyah, has proposed a new model for the resolution of current political crisis.
He said, “The region needs the establishment of a High Council or Senate to assist the existing parliament in order to address the debate surrounding presidential election,” speaking in an interview with TRT World.
In this scenario, Barzani’s term could be extended further, but his authority will also be limited both by the presence of the council and the parliament. The region also needs a comprehensive reconciliation process to erode the rigid factionalist stands of the parties, he added.
Hafeed has been a founding member of the Mosul Vilayet Council since 1992. The KRG claims the territories of the former Ottoman province of the Mosul Vilayet.
Barzani said, “The coup methods and the imposition of the leaders will not achieve any results for the resolution of our issues. The KRG and all the parties at the parliament should rush to reach a resolution based on consensus.”
“The solution should be the one which defends the interests of our people and country. If there will no resolution, then, we should go to early elections. We must continue to fight intimately defending the union and integrity of the Kurdistan region,” he added.