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Making It Up As They Go Along:
The Long, Troubled History of Iraqi Kurdistan's Presidency

Histyar Qader
Iraqi Kurdistan's problems with their President are actually nothing new. In fact, being a President here has often had no democratic or legal foundation. There's a long history behind the current debate.
20.08.2015  |  Sulaymaniyah
A PUK supporter holds a green flag during election campaigning in 2010. (photo: دشتي أنور)
A PUK supporter holds a green flag during election campaigning in 2010. (photo: دشتي أنور)

The Iraqi Kurdish President's term expired yesterday. And the political actors in the semi-autonomous, northern region have been arguing about whether the current President, Massoud Barzani, should stay or go for more than two months now, in the run up to this expiration. Nobody has been able to come to any kind of agreement and it looks as though, despite the best efforts of many, the debate will go on.

But in fact this particular debate has been going on for far longer than the current episode. The question of who should get the job of president in Iraqi Kurdistan has been a source of friction and controversy since the 1990s.

In 1992, six months after the Iraqi Kurdish region was declared partially independent of Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad, the first elections were held. This also included elections for the position of President. The candidates included Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, Jalal Talabani, head of the region's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, or PUK, Uthman Abdul-Aziz of a major Islamic party and Kurdish politician, Mahmoud Othman, who is now an independent but was formerly the head of the Iraqi Kurdish socialist party. None of the candidates managed to get over the required 50 percent of the votes needed to become President.

“Barzani's votes were a little less than Talabani but neither of them reached the required threshold,” Othman recalls in an interview with NIQASH. “That was why the presidential elections were held again after two weeks, then they were postponed for two months, and in the end they were not held at all.”

The Parliament itself was almost evenly divided between MPs from the PUK and MPs from the KDP and many decisions were simply hammered out between the two party leaderships, before they even reached Parliament. The one decision that nobody could make though, was about who should be President.

“The problem was between Talabani and Barzani,” Othman told NIQASH. “Neither of them would have accepted the other as leader – even if a second round of elections had been held.”

In 1994, as a result of ongoing tensions between the PUK and the KDP, a four-year-long civil war broke out in Iraqi Kurdistan. After this conflict ended with the signing of a truce in 1998, the semi-autonomous region was basically split in two. Although the two parties agreed to share power and income, in reality they were two governments ruling over two relatively separate zones, with the KDP's “yellow” zone in Erbil and Dohuk and the PUK's “green” zone in Sulaymaniyah; the zones were described as these colours after the parties' own symbolic colours.

The issue of the presidency took a different route at this stage, and during the era of the two sets of governments, the job actually took shape - but without any genuine legal justification or framework.

In Erbil, the KDP majority apparently wanted Barzani to be their president. “We asked Massoud Barzani many times to take the job but he never accepted,” recalls Jafar Sheikh Ali, who was a member of the KDP present in the KDP-dominated Parliament at the time.

Although Barzani said he didn't want the job, in fact he was still the most powerful political personality and senior administrator in the KDP zone, where his party was so influential.

Then in 1999, Talabani declared himself President of the green zone, Sulaymaniyah, where his party, the PUK, was most influential.

“Talabani was given this post in order to pass a number of important laws,” explains Fareed Asasard, a senior member of the PUK. “Because at that time the politicians in the Sulaymaniyah area didn't have any power.”

“So Talabani held the post of President of the region in the Sulaymaniyah area and Barzani was simply treated like a President in the Erbil area,” explains Latif Sheikh Mustafa, a legal expert and member of another of Iraqi Kurdistan's biggest political parties, the Change movement, which broke away from the PUK. “They did this because both of them wanted to satisfy their desire for power. Not because there was any kind of legal vacuum.”

In 2005, having two leaders like this became untenable – the political system in iraqi Kurdistan had also developed – and the PUK and the KDP agreed that Barzani could become President of the entire region, thanks to a law that was drafted in Parliament.

Of course, there was a price to be paid. The PUK forced the KDP to support the nomination of Talabani as the President of the whole of Iraq, one of the most senior jobs in the whole country. And the deal that was worked out then is still in force today.

In 2005, Parliament nominated Barzani to the job and then in 2009 he was elected to be President through general elections. According to the 2005 laws, the president may only remain in power for two terms. A term is four years.

So Barzani's second term was supposed to end in 2013 and Iraqi Kurdish laws also said he could not nominate himself again. The political situation had changed quite a lot since then though – it was no longer just the KDP and the PUK wrangling about power sharing. Now there were also the Islamic parties and the breakaway Change movement, which had been elected on an anti-corruption platform, to consider. And these parties did not want to see Barzani get the job again.

Nonetheless Barzani clung to the Presidency through clever sleight of legislation that many considered illegal. That smart play gave him another two years – and these ended at midnight, on Wednesday August 20, 2015.

If Barzani wants to stay in power again, he has an even bigger fight ahead of him. Now even the PUK, the KDP's old jousting partner and power sharing “frenemy”, has said that they don't want to see him stay on as President. That is along with all the other parties in Parliament.

Complicating matters further is the incomplete Iraqi Kurdish Constitution. The Constitution, which remains at a draft stage, currently seeks to limit the powers of Iraqi Kurdistan's President and move the entire political system closer to a parliamentary one, where MPs get to elect the President. The disagreement on the presidency is slowing work on the years-in-the-making Constitution and some have even suggested that legal loopholes pertaining to the Constitution may be used to keep Barzani in power.

“The absence of an agreement between the different parties on the President's powers and position has created a lot of problems for us too,” says Khamoush Omar, a member of the committee tasked with drafting the new Constitution.

The main argument that many in Iraqi Kurdistan currently have for wanting to keep Barzani in power is the fact that, at times of crisis, it is important to have a strong leader, one who knows what they are doing. Barzani is not shy about making strong and aggressive statements and he is still seen by many in Iraqi Kurdistan as the best person for the job right now, despite the lack of democratic will behind a further term for him.

Local sociologist Baymand Abdul-Qader says that many in Kurdistan prefer a charismatic leader who is seen as strong, over a just and democratically elected leader.

“Members of tribal societies may consider the removal of a leader from their senior position as an act of degradation,” she warns. Most ordinary Kurds in Iraq can only hope it doesn't come to that.


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