By Iran Review
By Mohammad Ali Dastmali*
According to the constitution of the new Iraq, part of the country’s Kurdish regions have been designated as a federal region known as “the Iraqi Kurdistan Region” whose management has been left to Kurds. This region includes the Iraqi provinces of Dahuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah in addition to the Halabja region, which was recently recognized as its fourth province. This region borders three countries of Syria, Turkey and Iran and in view of the revolutionary background of its old parties – which dates back to early decades of the 20th century when they started to fight for independence – the region is of special political significance.
When the Iraqi Kurdistan Region was established, two Kurdish parties, that is, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by Massoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani, swayed the highest power with smaller Islamist and leftist parties also having limited activities within its limits. However, at present, there are 37 small and big parties active in this region, and in addition to having its own defense force known as the Peshmerga with 70,000 armed personnel, the Iraqi Kurdistan Region sells its oil independently to global markets through Turkey while also receiving an annual budget from the central government in Baghdad.
During recent days and weeks, the issue of choosing a leader or a president for the Iraqi Kurdistan Region has turned into a major problem. The tenure of Massoud Barzani is legally over, but he is not ready to relinquish power easily.
Sending their high-ranking diplomats to the Iraqi Kurdistan, the United States, Iran and Turkey have been doing their best to help political parties in that region reach a final conclusion on this issue as soon as possible. The president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region is in charge of such important matters as the general command of the armed forces, setting direction of the region’s foreign policy, determining macro policies on relations with the central government, heading the security apparatus of the region and, at the same time, having complete control of the region’s oil revenues. Therefore, having such immense powers, the presidency has practically marginalized other parties and institutions. This is why the opposition parties argue that the Iraqi Kurdistan Region must be run through a parliamentary system, but Massoud Barzani and his party, that is, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, believe that the best political system for this region is a presidential system.
Dissociation between form and content of democracy in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region
At present, the Iraqi Kurdistan Region avails itself of such important means and symbols of democracy as the separation of powers, a parliament, elections, a cabinet of ministers, media, the possibility of holding elections, and the possibility of political activities by various parties. In other words, it has all the means that a democratic system should have.
The reality, however, is that these means have not gone beyond a simple façade and all major decisions are made behind the scenes through bargaining among various parties and through their agreement on how to divide benefits, without any visible sign of the majority vote having a say over the minority. In addition, one of the most important problems plaguing political parties in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region is that the transfer of power from the first leader of the party to the next leader is practically not possible. Mullah Mustafa Barzani continued to lead the Kurdistan Democratic Party since it was established in 1946 up to his death in 1979, after which, his son, Massoud Barzani, has been leading the party.
On the other hand, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan has been under the leadership of Jalal Talabani since 1975. Although he has been practically playing no role in running the party since two years ago due to a stroke, he is still considered the leader of the party and his wife, Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, and son, Qubad Talabani, sway great power within the party.
On the other hand, the leader of the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party, Muhammad Haji Mahmud, has been trying to transfer the power to his brother.
The same situation governs the Islamist parties as well and almost in all cases, the highest political, executive and security posts are controlled by high-ranking officials of those parties. Masrour Barzani, the son of Massoud, is heading the region’s intelligence service; the son of Talabani is deputy prime minister; the son of a given Peshmerga commander is a minister and other families have been also swaying control over various positions of power as a result of which financial corruption is quite rampant in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.
In any elections, it is easily possible for the participants to use government or partisan financial resources for their personal gain and cheating is also quite possible. People can vote using birth certificates of dead people while some lawmakers and state officials who are in high posts can be easily bribed.
Finally, what remains in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region is a flawed and half-living model of democracy, which may seem desirable on the surface, but beneath the surface, it bears no resemblance to a democratic political system. Therefore, even if the problem of choosing a new head of state is solved one way or another, such an inefficient system of democracy is sure to give birth to more problems in the future.
* Mohammad Ali Dastmali
Expert on Turkey Affairs