Leadership prospects in Iraqi Kurdistan

While the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is working to reinforce its existence in Syria and Iraq, the future of Iraqi Kurdistanand’s leadership is adding new tension in the Middle East.
The 10-year tenure of the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is coming to an end on Aug. 19. Massoud Barzani and his entourage have run the KRG without much debate about its legitimacy. It has kept the Iraqi Kurdish society together and maintained the hope of survival and autonomy against all odds.
However, as the end of his term approaches the competition for leadership among political factions is getting hotter and poses the risk of destabilizing the KRG.
Baghdad is in shambles and has lost the ability to keep the country together. The Iraqi central government has not kept its promise to pay 17 percent of the countryand’s oil revenues to the Kurds as dictated by the Constitution. Furthermore, both Baghdad and Arbil are at risk of an ISIL onslaught.
Barzaniand’s presidency was based on an agreement between his party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which was extended for two years in 2013. But it is unknown how the transfer of power will be realized when his term ends in August. Some political actors are proposing a new parliamentary system whereby Barzani would have a ceremonial role but the issue remains unsolved as of yet.
Barzaniand’s KDP has 38 seats and the PUK has 18 seats in the Kurdistan Parliament, which has a total of 111 seats. Other groups that make up the political umbrella have smaller numbers. As a result, agreement on critical issues is quite difficult.
The extension of Barzaniand’s tenure requires amending the law related to the presidency, and procuring a consensus could be quite difficult. However, the Kurdish people in Iraq and their political organizations are quite aware that a leadership crisis in Kurdistan may weaken their mandate amid the severe crisis in the Middle East and ISIL at their doorstep. There are obscurities in the Kurdistan Election Law regarding whether a candidate (Barzani as a matter of fact)an run for the post again after 10 consecutive years in office.
Right now the president is the top executive and most powerful official in Iraqi Kurdistan. In the Kurdish system, parliament has few powers and little clout to challenge the president and his decisions. While existing parties have not yet evinced any zest to challenge Barzani, many argue that given Kurdistanand’s diverse political edifice where no political group has the majority to form the government, a system with a strong president may not succeed. The union of diverse groups requires a more participatory system than a strong presidency that forces decisions down the line, so many Kurdish actors see the parliamentary system as being more accommodating for Kurdistan.
The Kurdistan Election Law demands new elections for the next president but the KDP leadership seems to prefer a negotiated solution with other political actors without too much ado. Both the diversity in the Kurdish community and the contentious atmosphere in greater Iraq leave no room for disagreements within the KRG, which is so far the most stable region in the country.
Barzani himself made a statement this month regarding his willingness to honor whatever decision the Kurdish Parliament and political parties agree upon regarding the presidency.
No one wants an internal conflict while the whole of Kurdistan is under the threat of an ISIL attack. This leads to two possibilities: One, the law passed in 2013 to extend Barzaniand’s term may be amended to prolong his term. Two, the creation of a parliamentary system whereby parliament can hold the president and other executives accountable. Some observers believe that the KDP will consent to a parliamentary system in return for Barzaniand’s stay in office. Barzani himself may agree to fewer powers but will resist a position that is merely a ceremonial role. In either case, a compromise by the stakeholders is expected to avert a crisis otherwise, an easy transfer of power may not be possible during these dire days for Iraq.
If the KRG leadership becomes a matter of controversy, the Kurdistan Workersand’ Party (PKK) is always there with its pan-Kurdish ambition for a greater and united Kurdistan. Considering the latest news that PKK militants have clashed with the Iranian KDP over territorial control in Iraq and its clout in Syria, Turkey and Iran, it will sooner or later compete for leadership in the wider Kurdish geography.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman