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An Illegal State:
Will Iraqi Kurdistan End Up Without A President, Or A Parliament?

Honar Hama Rasheed
In early September, the current session of Iraqi Kurdistan’s parliament ends. Several solutions are being suggested to solve the political deadlock before then. But none seem likely to work out.
23.03.2017  |  Sulaymaniyah
The eighth cabinet of Iraqi Kurdistan was sworn  in, in 2014. Things have gone downhill from there. Source: Parliamentary website. (photo: موقع حكومة اقليم كردستان)
The eighth cabinet of Iraqi Kurdistan was sworn in, in 2014. Things have gone downhill from there. Source: Parliamentary website. (photo: موقع حكومة اقليم كردستان)

What is to become of politics in Iraqi Kurdistan? There are only six months left to the current parliamentary session in the semi-autonomous northern region, after which Kurdish politicians, currently gridlocked, will be in limbo even more. The session ends in September.

Thanks to ongoing conflicts that started back in August 2015 about who should hold the position of the region’s president, the Iraqi Kurdish parliament has been operating under less than completely legal and constitutional circumstances, and even at times, suspended.

Although all the Iraqi Kurdish political parties have continued with their work individually, not all of them agree that the current president, Massoud Barzani, is “their president”. Barzani heads Iraqi Kurdistan’s most popular party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP.

Besides a lack of trust, the main reason none of the proposals have come to anything is because there is no political will for it – and particularly not from those in power.

A number of proposals have been drafted in order to try and resolve this problem. The two most recent were developed by the second-most popular party in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, and another proposal was written by one of the region’s more religious parties, the Kurdistan Islamic Union.

According to Osman Karwani, a senior member of the Islamic Union, their proposal consists of 12 paragraphs. The paper has been handed out to all the parties in the region but, Karwani admits, it has not met with much enthusiasm.

The PUK has written up another roadmap with eight points for action, a senior member of that party who helped prepare the proposal, Fareed Asasard, explained. But he too doesn’t hold out much hope that all the Kurdish politicians would accept the proposal, let alone act upon it.

The main problem is that the political parties in the region, which has its own borders, military and political system that work separately from the rest of the country, do not trust one another. Any proposal by one is viewed with suspicion by the others.

“Besides a lack of trust, the main reason none of the proposals have come to anything is because there is no political will for it – and particularly not from those in power,” says Ribawar Hamad, the spokesperson for the Islamic Group, which brings together the Kurdish Islamic Union with two other religious parties in Iraqi Kurdistan. “There is no will to resolve conflicts,” he continued. “In fact, it is in the interests of the powerful parties to maintain the status quo. That’s why they are doing nothing to change this.”

If, as looks likely, all attempts fail there are only two other options left to end the state of political limbo the region is currently in.

Firstly, elections could be held in the region. And secondly, the current term of the parliament and therefore also the presidency could be extended.

The regional government has approved the budgets for holding presidential and parliamentary elections, Shirwan Zarar Nabi, the spokesperson for the Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission, the committee tasked with running elections in Iraqi Kurdistan, said at a press conference in early March. “We are just waiting for orders to hold them,” he explained.  

The last parliamentary elections were held in the region in 2013 but there have been no presidential elections there since 2009.

“All attempts at reconciliation have failed here,” Khasro Koran, a senior member of the KDP and the official responsible for elections in the party, told NIQASH. “So the KDP believes that holding elections would be the best solution. And this year.”

But not everyone thinks the KDP is being genuine.

“Holding elections is a good thing, and a good way to resolve these problems. We support this,” concedes Mohammed Ali, a member of the Change movement, another of the region’s biggest parties and usually in opposition to the KDP. “But the region is in no state to hold elections. We don’t think the current state of the region, in both economic and security terms, is appropriate for elections.”

Additionally, every Iraqi Kurdish political party other than the KDP, believes it’s not even possible to make any decisions about holding elections because parliamentary work is not proceeding legally. Having banned politicians from some parties from entering the parliament in Erbil, the KDP holds the balance of power there.

“The president of Iraqi Kurdistan could issue a decree 60 days before the end of the current parliamentary session, specifying a date for elections,” Farsat Sofi, a member of the parliamentary legal committee and of the KDP, told NIQASH. “Then IHERC can go ahead with the elections.”

If it turns out that it is as difficult to hold elections as most seem to expect, then the last option would be an extension of the current parliamentary session and presidency, even if the latter is considered illicit by some. Historically there are precedents for this in Iraqi Kurdistan.

“The KDP has already discussed the idea of an extension with the PUK and the Islamic parties,” an anonymous source from within the Change movement complained. 

It is true that a delegation from the KDP raised this subject during a meeting in March, says Abubakir Haldani, a senior member of the Kurdistan Islamic Union. “The KDP told us it wasn’t ready yet to give up the presidency and that it would hold onto this in exchange for allowing the PUK to keep the presidency of Iraq.”

In an agreement from 2005, the two political parties that basically split power in Iraqi Kurdistan, the KDP and PUK agreed to share these two important roles, with one party holding onto the Iraqi Kurdish presidency and the other being able to name the president of Iraq, based in Baghdad’s federal parliament.

“We support the idea of holding elections but if this proves impossible then the KDP, along with other Iraqi Kurdish parties, need to find legal solutions that keep Iraqi Kurdistan out of an impending power vacuum,” says Sofi of the KDP. “We don’t want Kurdish institutions to become invalid,” he added, without addressing the idea of an extension directly. 

Of course, the ordinary people of Iraqi Kurdistan would prefer that all of the political parties meet, negotiate and come to some kind of workable compromise. But, given the current levels of enmity and distrust, this seems the most unlikely solution of all. 

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