A monument celebrating the Kurdish parliament in the shape of a lock. (photo: حمه سور)
Earlier in July, politicians in Iraqi Kurdistan tackled one of the most tendentious problems the semi-autonomous northern region has to deal with: The regional presidency. Two laws were voted upon that basically suspended the office and its duties until the next parliament is sworn in. This means that the fate of the Kurdish presidency will be decided by politicians elected in regional ballot, due to be held in September.
The ball, so to speak, is now in the court of the next Iraqi Kurdish parliament. And it is there because nobody has been able to agree upon the presidency and what it entails and who should hold the job since the term of the last president ended officially in 2015. At that stage the sitting president, Massoud Barzani, said he would remain in the job he had held since 2005. The decision was controversial. However he was forced to relinquish the role in 2017 after last September’s ill-fated referendum on Kurdish independence. After Barzani’s withdrawal last year, the presidential powers were supposedly redistributed between MPs, the judiciary and the cabinet.
The conflict about the presidency and who should be president has disrupted politics in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2015.
Here in Iraqi Kurdistan, laws are drafted – and amended - to serve certain people, parties and families.
September’s regional elections are supposed to allow locals to choose both the parliament and the president of the region.
“It was better for us to suspend the regional presidency because if those elections were held then, our project – to have the president elected by parliament [ rather than by voters] – would have had to wait another four years,” explains Bahar Mahmoud, a member of the oppositional Change movement, who submitted the law.
The new law now keeps the presidential powers split and redistributed. The redistribution aspect of the law is important because the president of the region has various powers – such as deciding the date of elections and assigning who is to form the next government.
However even the new law cannot solve the problem at the heart of the debate over presidential powers: And this is the fact that certain political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan believe they have a right to the senior job. Other political parties do not agree.
Meanwhile the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, which Barzani heads, thinks that the issue of the presidency and its powers needs to be resolved as part of the long-delayed official constitution of Iraqi Kurdistan. The KDP is the biggest party in the region and if this is their position, it makes solving the president problem in parliament difficult – no matter how much the other parties want it.
The strange thing about the laws that were debated was that two very similar laws were brought to parliament by the KDP and the oppositional Change movement. These two parties do not usually agree on much, if anything.
Shortly before the Change movement law was read, the KDP presented a similar law but they linked their new rule about suspending the presidency to the ratification of the Constitution.
“It is important to resolve this issue through the Constitution,” argues Hoshyar Siwaily, a senior member of the KDP, who heads their foreign office. “The presidency is very important to the KDP. It is also very important, and symbolic, for the whole Kurdish region and it should be retained.”
Because of political infighting, a Constitution has remained unratified since 2009. One of the obstacles for those politicians opposed to seeing Barzani as president, is that if the Constitution is ratified, then Barzani could ostensibly claim that the new circumstances allow him to take up the job once again. According to current rules, he cannot.
Siwaily also agreed that the different Kurdish political parties should discuss the matter in the next session of parliament, once it begins. However if the matter cannot be resolved this way, then it should be settled by a vote in parliament. Obviously his party, which has the most seats in parliament, will be able to push things in its own favour.
The problem doesn’t lie with the post, it lies with the conflicts between the different parties.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, is the other mainstream party in Iraqi Kurdistan and has controlled the region, together with the KDP, for years. Rancour between the PUK and the Change movement has grown since the federal elections, when the Change movement accused the PUK of electoral fraud. “The Change movement imagines that if there is no president in Iraqi Kurdistan [usually held by a KDP member], then the PUK will not be able to have the national presidency,” suggests Dler Mawati, a senior member of the PUK. Usually a PUK politician gets the top job in Baghdad, while the KDP holds the presidency in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Meanwhile, Shorish Hassan, a lecturer in political science at the University of Sulaymaniyah, says the whole issue of Iraqi Kurdistan’s presidency can’t be resolved with just a few changes to the law. It’s a matter of personalities, as well as political allegiances, he points out.
Currently the system is confusing, neither presidential nor parliamentary, he explains.
“And here in Iraqi Kurdistan, laws are drafted – and amended - to serve certain people, parties and families,” Hassan argues.
Agreed, says another local politician, Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurdish commentator who has been a member of parliament several times and who was actually in the running to be the region’s very first president in the 1990s. Back then, he recalls, the post existed but it wasn’t filled because the leaders of the KDP and the PUK couldn’t agree who should fill it. So it was left empty. Othman says this proves again that, “the problem doesn’t lie with the post, it lies with the conflicts between the different parties.”