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From Broad-Base To Dictatorship:
As Coalition Fails, Locals Ask Which Form of Government Best for Iraqi Kurdistan

Histyar Qader
Iraqi Kurdistan has gone through a number of different government formats, from coalitions to power sharing. As the latest version fails, local politicians debate which kind of government is best.
5.11.2015  |  Sulaymaniyah
Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani (centre), with members of his government. (photo: موقع حكومة اقليم كردستان)
Iraqi Kurdish Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani (centre), with members of his government. (photo: موقع حكومة اقليم كردستان)

Last week the Prime Minister of the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan named four politicians to replace the Ministers that his party had previously dismissed. The dismissed Ministers were members of the Change movement and Prime Minster Nechirvan Barzani's party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, had accused them of being behind protests that turned violent and deadly earlier in the month.

The current government of the region was voted into life by the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament in June 2014. But the consensus has only managed to last a year – now things are looking rather shaky again as the KDP told the ministers from the Change movement they had lost their jobs and then banned the Speaker of the Kurdish Parliament, also a member of the Change movement, from entering his offices. The appointments of the new members of the Iraqi Kurdish cabinet recently were seen as the final nail in the coffin of what had been the region's broad-based coalition-style government.

At the time, a broad based coalition was the only option, explains Ali Hussein, a leading member of the KDP. But since then, “the presence of the Change movement inside the [Iraqi Kurdish] government has become a threat to peace in the region,” he told NIQASH.

“The reason for the failure of this model of government is that former opposition parties who joined the administration are still acting as though they are in the opposition,” added Nariman Othman, a senior member of the region's other major political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. “And the other parties in power treat them like this too.”

In fact, this is only the latest form of government not to work out for Iraqi Kurdistan; the region has been through a number of models of government and none have worked well in the 23 years that the region has had various forms of limited independence within Iraq. After the first Iraqi Kurdish Parliament was elected in 1992, the two parties that came out with majorities – the KDP and the PUK – formed a power sharing government that was supposed to split all senior positions and powers equally between them, staring from the job of prime minister right down to deputy department directors. However conflict between the two parties, who basically split voters and terrain between them, with the KDP holding power and popularity in Erbil and Dohuk and the PUK doing the same in the Sulaymaniyah area, turned violent in 1994 and led to a civil war of sorts between the two parties. This lasted until 1998 but its impact lingers.

The region continued to be split, with the two parties administrating their respective areas, until in 2005 a national unity government was formed. Other parties from inside Iraqi Kurdistan took part in this administration, including local parties with an Islamic bent like the Kurdistan Islamic Union. Because other parties than the KDP and PUK were involved, this government could be defined as coming close to a more broad-based one. However the smaller parties didn't really get a lot of say in important decisions. And eventually the many stalemates this government ran up against led to the formation of a Kurdish political opposition.

When the two major political parties, the KDP and the PUK, formed the next government in 2009 they found the Islamic parties in Iraqi Kurdistan had decided to become a more active opposition, rather than playing a powerless role. They were joined by the Change movement, a new political party that formed when leading members broke away from the PUK and began campaigning on an anti-corruption platform.

Tensions between the two ruling parties and the new opposition caused many problems in Iraqi Kurdistan over the ensuing four years, including a number of major demonstrations during which protesters demanded political reform.

The fact that all of these models of government were unsuccessful is due not to the models themselves, argues Samir Salim of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, but to the political environment here, where there are only partisan interests. Salim himself has been part of a broad based, coalition -style government and he has been in opposition. He believes that the broad based government is actually the weakest model.

“The democratic process is not on the right path here,” Salim told NIQASH.

The latest form of administration in Iraqi Kurdistan has been another just-failed experiment in broad based, coalition-style government. The latest government saw all of the region's major and minor parties come together in one government. Even though there was supposedly no opposition, things didn't really work out like that.

Hussein, a leading member of the KDP, says his party was wishing for a return to the old two-party rule when they and the PUK could (mostly) agree on things.

“For us, that kind of government was easier and better than any other format,” Hussein told NIQASH.

Interestingly Kwestan Ali Abdullah, a senior member of the Change movement, also believes the best model of governance involved the two major parties in government with the others, including hers, serving as an opposition, and basically as watchdogs.

“The opposition parties were revealing information to voters to put pressure on the government and the government was forced to enact some fairly minor reforms,” she says, “If this pattern had continued, then the government would have eventually been under more pressure and would have had to get involved in genuine reforms.”

In fact the only form of government that has yet to be tested in the Iraqi Kurdish democratic arena is that of one-party rule. While the two major parties dominate in their individual areas - and this could be considered a one-party rule on the provincial level - it's never happened on a regional level. Up until now, no single party has been able to dominate elections enough although, on the whole, the KDP has always managed to get the most votes.

Even though he is a member of the KDP, Hussein doesn't believe a one-party government is a good idea, saying that “the state [of Iraqi Kurdistan] hasn't sufficiently evolved yet”.

Othman, of the PUK, agrees, saying the administrations are far from united and one-party rule would be a mistake.

Harem Kamal Agha, a senior politician also of the PUK, disagrees: “Only one party should form the government. It's the only way to make the region more stable. The broad-based format hasn’t worked, and nobody can get anything done. The participation of minor parties is on paper only, it's charade,” he argues.

Meanwhile Kamran Barwari, a professor of political science at the University of Dohuk, who has been associated with the Change movement in the past, suggests that it's not just the different models of government causing problems in Iraqi Kurdistan. He also thinks its due to the lack of a proper Constitution to guide the political process in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“Party leaders here have imposed themselves on the Iraqi Kurdish parliament and this is the main reason why different formations of government have failed,” Barwari told NIQASH. “But it would wrong for the region to have a one-party government because this will just take us down the path toward dictatorship, given the absence of a truly democratic political culture. Any party that could monopolize power won't hesitate to eradicate the other parties.”

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