The Kurdistan Constitution, passed by the Regional Parliament on June 24 and set to be put before Kurdish voters for approval in a July 25 referendum, has sparked controversy from both across the country and within
Critics say the Constitution, which was overwhelming passed by a parliament dominated by the region’s two major parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), is unconstitutional.
Most controversially, the document unilaterally asserts Kurdish sovereignty over disputed territories including oil-rich Kirkuk province and areas of Nineveh and Diyala provinces, which have long been a source of tension between central and Kurdish authorities.
Additionally, the Constitution requires that the Central Government obtain the prior consent of the Regional Government before concluding any international treaties that will also apply to the region.
These articles have immediately provoked a strong backlash from Iraqi politicians who say that the document usurps the powers of the Central Government. Fifty Arab members of the Iraqi Parliament have signed a statement strongly rejecting the Constitution and calling on the Central Government to intervene.
"Not only is it not compatible with the federal Constitution but it violates it and gives the [Kurdish] Region more power than Baghdad," said Ossama al-Nujaifi of the Iraqi National List.
According to the document’s critics the Constitution plainly contains secessionist tendencies that are unjustifiable and will provoke new conflict between the Kurdish Region and the Central Government.
Meanwhile, the Constitution has also provoked internal Kurdish criticism with opponents saying the document was illegally passed by Parliament without public oversight and that it grants the Regional President too much power.
The Change List, which will compete in the July 25 parliamentary elections on a platform of reform and which is led by a PUK dissident, said that Parliament unconstitutionally passed the document in order to ensure the continuing domination of the two ruling parties, the PUK and KDP.
“The current Parliament does not have the legitimacy to approve the Constitution because its term ended June 4. It cannot pass an important document such as the Constitution, the source of all laws,” said Kwestan Muhammad, a leading member of the Change List and former head of the PUK parliamentary bloc.
Parliament extended its own term pending the election of a new Parliament, citing exceptional circumstances, but critics say this does not give it the power to pass fundamental decrees such as a Constitution governing Kurdish political life.
Asos Hardi, a local journalist, described the way the Constitution was adopted as a "disgrace" to Parliament. He criticized the extension of parliamentary powers and said that while the step was justifiable in periods of instability or civil war, there was no reason for the step in the current stability.
Additionally, Hardi criticized the fact that the public was not able to debate or even read the Constitution before it was passed by Parliament. While the first draft Constitution, which was presented to Parliament three years ago, was open to public debate, this version was completed behind closed doors.
Opponents of the new Constitution say that one of the reasons the document was passed so quickly was that it grants sweeping powers to the Regional President, a move which is intended to ensure the continuing domination of incumbent powers in the face of new parliamentary challenges.
The new Constitution allows the President to dissolve Parliament; it grants the President supreme executive power and command over Peshmerga armed forces; it gives him the power to ratify and strike down parliamentary decisions; it also gives him the right to remove ministers and issue decrees that carry the force of law.
While the KDP and PUK currently hold two thirds of parliamentary seats, they are expected to lose ground in the face of challenges from new parties including the Change List. However, with the election of the Regional President also happening on July 25 and with KDP head Massoud Barzani expected to win a new term in office, power will thereby be maintained in his hands.
According to Adnan Othman, editor of the Roznama newspaper owned by Nawshirwan Mustafa, head of the Change List, the Constitution "is not consistent with the parliamentary system of government because it establishes a presidential system of government.”
Observers also say that the new Constitution is an election ploy by the two main parties. By approving the Constitution so close to parliamentary elections they hope to gain popular and electoral support on the back of the document’s national rhetoric and claim over disputed territories.
Additionally, by timing the publication of the document to coincide with the withdrawal of U.S troops from Iraqi cities on June 30, some observers believe that the Kurdish Regional government is hoping to draw concessions out of the Central Government at a time of vulnerability. While the Constitution’s articles might have normally roused the hostility of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, especially in light of his new ‘national’ rhetoric, the need to avoid confrontation with the Kurds as U.S troops pull-back may have softened the Central Government’s reaction.