Reflections on the political stalemate in the Kurdistan Region

News that the Kurdish Parliament has postponed the planned presidential election and extended the term of the current presidency for up to two years will understandably prompt concerns about democracy. If this were a power grab to prevent the peaceful transfer of power to another political force, it would reverse everything that Kurdish leaders have voluntarily embraced since they first escaped from Saddam’s genocidal fascism.

Kurdish leaders then decided to make a journey from revolutionary to constitutional legitimacy. They established a Parliament in 1992 and an elected Presidency in 2005. President Barzani was first elected by the parliament in 2005 and then by a popular vote in 2009.

My concern is that this latest news will be misunderstood and undermine political and economic confidence in the Kurdistan Region. There is, I think, more to this story than meets the eye at a glance. This is my understanding of the issues.

A draft constitution was agreed by the Kurdish parliament earlier this year and was due for ratification by a popular referendum. The constitution was based on widespread consultations over many years to maximise the consensus for its provisions among parties – 36 to be precise – and ethnic groups such as Christians and Turkomen. The draft limits any individual to two presidential terms and codifies direct elections.

However, since those consultation began, there has been a split in one of the two main governing parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This led to the emergence of a new opposition party, Gorran (Change) – a healthy development in itself. Gorran has about 25% of the parliamentary seats and has decided to challenge the decision to elect the president by a popular rather than parliamentary vote. Some in Gorran, who had previously endorsed direct presidential elections when they were in the PUK, have changed their minds and oppose the draft constitution, as is their right.

Whether a president is elected indirectly or directly and the best balance between the powers of the presidency, ministers and the parliament are a matter of choice. There are good arguments for different arrangements and it’s not for me to take sides but I can add that such constitutional decisions should command widespread support – typically two-thirds in many countries and voluntary clubs.

It would have been normal for the majority which endorsed the draft to proceed to a referendum on without the support of the opposition parties whose supporters number fewer than a third in the Parliament. In one vote in 2009, 96 out of 97 members present voted for it. The Parliament comprises 111 members.

Proceeding on this basis was the majority’s initial preference but they have changed tack because the issue has exploded into a major controversy. I understand that the temperature of the debate has recently soared significantly with major rallies for and against the draft constitution.

Some say that the bitterness of the debate reminds them of the period before the civil war between the PUK and the other major party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the mid-90s. The fracture lines of the civil war are not far beneath the surface and help explain caution. The general experience of civil wars is that their fraternal passions take many years to subside.

Representatives of the majority view have decided to cool the temperature by giving the new parliament to be elected in September the chance the debate the constitution again and decide whether it includes direct or indirect elections before it goes to the people.

This delay is not ideal. Majorities with an electoral mandate are entitled to implement decisions, while they must also protect minority rights, but minorities cannot veto decisions based on the will of the majority. But if the price of adhering to due process were to further deepen divisions then it was probably better to take time out and start again. Discretion is the better part of valour, perhaps. The absence of a decision on whether the presidential election should be direct or indirect obviously means that the election should not proceed until that issue is resolved.

It wouldn’t normally arise in a place with longer and deeper democratic traditions and practices. But the Kurdistan Region is a young democracy and it’s probably the least worse solution in the circumstances, although it gives a field day to cynics some of whom are accused of helping create the stalemate.

Friends of the Kurdistan Region should acknowledge that the current President Masoud Barzani seems to have very reluctantly accepted that the search for a new consensus requires pausing the presidential elections. It has pretty much been forced on him.

It’s also welcome that the current President has made it clear that he is not seeking a further term and will hand over power to whoever replaces him. He writes that “No one should remain in power forever and we should never allow for the notion of an eternal president.” The alternation of power from Massoud Barzani to his successor will test the solidity of the democratic process in the next two years.

Opposition parties have often told me and others of their accusations of electoral fraud although previous elections have been validated by the EU, UN and several diplomatic posts. The constitutional controversy makes it more necessary that the parliamentary elections in September, the subsequent referendum and then any direct presidential election are independently monitored.

There is much mud being flung about. Dispassionate analysis and international monitoring of elections can help ensure that the only mud that sticks flows from any clear infringements of democratic norms. It can help ensure that this stalemate is overcome in a statesmanlike manner and deepens democratic norms in the Kurdistan Region.

Gary Kent. These are my personal thoughts about this issue and don’t necessarily represent those of the APPG.

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