The Blog

Pause for Calm Not a Power-Grab in Iraqi Kurdistan

MPs at Westminster have been lobbied about the decision of the Kurdish Parliament to postpone the planned presidential election and extend the term of the current presidency for up to two years.

MPs at Westminster have been lobbied about the decision of the Kurdish Parliament to postpone the planned presidential election and extend the term of the current presidency for up to two years. This understandably prompts concerns about a power grab that would reverse everything that Kurdish leaders have voluntarily embraced since Iraqi Kurdistan 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.

There is, I think, more to this story than meets the eye at a glance. 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 and ethnic groups. The draft limits any individual to two presidential terms and codifies direct elections.

However, since those consultation began, there has been a split in the PUK and the emergence of an opposition party, Gorran - a healthy development in itself. Gorran has about 25% of the parliamentary seats and opposes the decision to elect the president by a popular rather than parliamentary vote.

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 on this choice except to remark that such constitutional decisions should command widespread support - typically two-thirds.

It would have been normal for the majority to proceed to a referendum without the support of the opposition parties whose supporters number fewer than a third in the Parliament. 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 KDP in the mid-90s. The fracture lines of the civil war are not far beneath the surface and helps explain caution.

Representatives of the majority view, it seems, 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.

President 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 the current President to his successor in the next two years will test the solidity of the democratic process.

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.

Much mud is 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.

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