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A Democracy In Name Only:
Paying A Visit To Iraqi Kurdistan's Parliament, Where Work Is Suspended

Awara Hamid
Since October, Iraqi Kurdistan's Parliament, for all intents and purposes, and whether MPs admit it or not, has been suspended. NIQASH pays a visit to see exactly what is – and what is not – happening there.
23.12.2015  |  Erbil
The exterior of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament in Erbil. (photo: ئاواره‌ حه‌مید)
The exterior of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament in Erbil. (photo: ئاواره‌ حه‌مید)

Thanks to the recent political stoush in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Parliament in the semi-autonomous, northern region has all but stopped work. It is an institution in name only and many of it's members, locally elected MPs, have nothing to do. Some of the most senior members of the government in this region, which acts semi-independently of Baghdad and which always boasted about its democratic progress compared to the rest of the country, are sitting at home doing nothing.

To explore what might be going on inside the Parliament buildings and to see how bad – or not – things were really were, NIQASH paid a visit.

The current stalemate has come about thanks to disagreements about what should happen with the region's Presidency. The term of the Iraqi Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, was supposed to finish in August this year. But because Barzani and his party have been reluctant to give up this post, despite objections from almost all other political parties in the region, there were protests in one of the biggest cities here, Sulaymaniyah. These turned violent and Barzani's party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, blamed an opposition party, the Change movement, for that. The KDP then declared that the Change movement's part in a broad-based, power-sharing government, which included almost everyone in politics in Iraqi Kurdistan, should be curtailed. The KDP banned members of the Change movement from entering the region's capital, Erbil, where Parliament buildings are based.

This included stopping the Speaker of Iraqi Kurdistan's Parliament, Yusuf Mohammed, a member of the Change movement, from entering his office there.

The last official document signed by Mohammed was signed six days after he was prevented from doing his job, on October 18. It was a document detailing how Parliamentary committees were organized and it was accepted by the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament. Every other document issued by Mohammed since then is not considered to be legally binding. This is despite the fact that Mohammed continues to receive guests and official delegations in his offices in the region's other major city, Sulaymaniyah.

For years Iraqi Kurdistan has been split into two broad zones of influence. The area around Erbil is controlled by the KDP and the area around Sulaymaniyah is controlled by another major political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, of which the Change movement is an offshoot.

But this is far from normal. The Speaker of Parliament can obviously not head any sessions of Parliament if he is not allowed into the building in Erbil. Nor can MPs hold a session in Parliament if the Speaker is not present.

Inside the Parliament buildings, the office of the Speaker is empty. But just a few meters away, the office of his deputy is busy and full of visitors. When the official Speaker isn't available, his deputy is supposed to do his job. And in this case, the Deputy Speaker, Jaafar Emniki, also happens to be a senior member of the KDP.

Speaking to MPs from the KDP, they insist everything here is fine, business as usual. They refer to Mohammed as the “former” Speaker of Parliament saying that because Mohammed couldn't act independently he had to leave the job.

“MPs are coming to Parliament every day and so are the Parliament's employees,” insists Zagros Ahmed Kamal, a spokesperson for the KDP. “It is only the Speaker of Parliament who isn't doing the usual work.”

MP Shwan Sheikh Ahmad, a member of the KDP, also insisted that the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament was doing what it normally should. “It's just that it is not holding any sessions,” he said.

Additionally, there are 23 permanent or temporary committees in the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament and none of them have been able to hold their scheduled weekly meetings because a lack of members meant a lack of quorum.

“Actually the Parliament's work has been completely suspended,” says another MP, Beeston Faeq, a member of the Change movement, contradicting his colleagues in the KDP. “And as MPs for the Change movement we are refusing to do any business with the Deputy Speaker. There's been a coup here,” Faeq argues, adding that he doesn't think business will resume any time soon.

While the two main opponents in this stand off are the KDP and the Change movement, who, respectively are the most and the second-most popular parties with local voters, the other parties in the region haven't been able to change the situation either. Some MPs from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and some members of the smaller Islamic Kurdish parties, do go to their offices in Erbil to work. Others only go to offices in Sulaymaniyah. And the only thing their parties have been able to do is criticise what's going on.

“There is one force in Iraqi Kurdistan that is in violation of the law, in whose interests it is that the Parliament's work is suspended,” says MP Khadir Razkani, a member of the PUK, who NIQASH meets standing outside his party's offices in Erbil. “Parliament isn't functioning, committees are not convening. This makes it very difficult for anyone to go back to work and this situation is beyond the power of the Parliament to remedy.”

Interestingly enough the current stresses are also mirrored in Parliamentary administration. The Kurdish Parliament's website is run by employees who are members of the KDP – so the website only publishes news about the Deputy Speaker of Parliament, writing about him as though he is the actual Speaker.

To combat this, Mohammed, the Speaker of Parliament from the Change movement, opened his own Facebook page from his offices in Sulaymaniyah, naming it “Parliamentary Media”. This page is run by members of the Change movement and they only publish information about Mohammed or about the Parliamentary secretary, Fakhradin Qadr, a member of one of the Islamic parties, who has taken Mohammed's side in this dispute.

“We've tried our best to distance ourselves from this partisan conflict,” Tariq Jawhar, the spokesperson for the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament and a member of the PUK, told NIQASH. “But after October 12 [the day that Mohammed was denied entry to Parliament] a lot of things were simply imposed on us. We have spoken to both the Speaker of Parliament and his deputy about the folly of having two different media outlets, releasing two different versions of the news. What is happening now is even worse than what happened during the Kurdish civil war [when the KDP and PUK fought one another for control of the region].”

In fact, this is not the first time that the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament has suspended its work. Nothing happened here between 1994 and 1998 either, which is when the PUK and the KDP were fighting each other.

For now, observers of local politics can only agree with their powerless MPs on two things. Firstly, although nobody knows when the democratic mechanism will start up again in Iraqi Kurdistan, they all believe that sooner or later it will. And the other thing they all agree on? That until that happens, this problem will continue to tarnish the name that the Iraqi Kurdish region spent so many years making for itself.

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