Kurdistan’s Political System: Coming Major Controversy


By Mohammed Hussein: 7-2-2014 – Kurdistan Tribune – Discussions about the political system of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have caused a controversy which led to the postponement of a popular referendum on the region’s draft constitution and has deepened following the extension of the presidential term of Masud Barzani by two years without an election and legal procedures. The discussions about which political system should be reflected in the KRG’s constitution have produced two contrary choices: presidential and parliamentary. Although both have their strong arguments, I think the fear of dictatorship, highlighted by the pro-parliamentary advocates, is the overriding issue that everyone should be concerned about.

All political parties in Kurdistan are divided over these two choices, and both camps want to shape the political system of the KRG according to their world-views. Whenever the KRG’s draft constitution becomes the matter of discussion, the controversy gets more fervent. The draft looks like a ticking-time bomb, whoever brings it out to surface generates tough disputes between both camps: pro-presidential system, which includes Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and its allies; and pro-parliamentary, which includes the Gorran movement, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Islamic Union and Islamic Group in Kurdistan.

The pro-parliamentary camp argues that, if Kurdistan’s president gets elected by members of Parliament, those same members will be able to question him/her so that they block the path of any would-be dictator president. The argument goes that a strong presidency can easily lead to dictatorship, and there are some factors that make Kurdistan a fertile ground for producing dictators like any other Middle-Eastern society. They said that political institutions, especially parliament, should be stronger than the KRG’s president because the people’s general mindsets and the political parties’ structures may assist in changing the president into a tyrannical ruler. Moreover, if the president gets elected directly in a general election by Kurdistan’s citizens (draft constitution, article 61), no one could question him/her.

On the other hand, the pro-presidential camp argues that Kurdistan’s president should have the legitimacy of all the people’s votes, not just 112 parliament members and, due to the importance of the position, the scale of its legitimacy should be wider. They give some examples of democratic countries with presidential system like the USA and some examples of dictatorial governments with parliamentary system like Iraq. They are basically saying that what makes a president become dictatorial or democratic is not the political system as written down in the constitution since the process is more complicated.

With a strong president, there is always a strong possibility for going back to dictatorship because of many cultural, political, and economic factors. Preventing the KRG from transforming to a tyrannical system is an issue that should be ensured in Kurdistan’s constitution. For this purpose, I think KRG’s president should be responsible in front of the parliament.

According to the region’s current draft constitution, “the president will act as the commander in chief of the region’s armed forces (Peshmerga),” and the top security agency reports to him (draft constitution, article 60). Collecting all these powers in the president’s hands is one of the factors that makes the parliamentary advocates worry about the future of the whole political process in Kurdistan; they are assuming that “The current draft will establish a presidential system, giving excessive powers to the president, regardless of the charter’s description of the region’s system as parliamentary”(Insight Kurdistan).

I know it is not easy to build a democratic government just through an appropriate constitution, but the right constitution could be a useful tool for preventing despotic rule. A presidential system could work if there are strong, active political parties, free and independent media, NGOs and active civil societies, but unfortunately these are non-existent in Kurdistan. Kurdistan’s society is really vulnerable to the danger of a strong president due to already “rising authoritarianism, absence of financial transparency and increasingly evident gap between the haves and the have-nots in Kurdish society,” as described by Denise Natali, a specialist in Iraq, regional energy issues and the Kurdish problem (Al-Monitor).

Again, a strong president without parliamentary accountability is risky since the chance of the president becoming a tyrannical autocrat is big enough to destroy the Kurdistan people’s hopes to build their democracy. According to Philip Wood, a specialist in the history of the Middle East, “The power structures of the KRG remain clan-based.” (Open Democracy). He explained how the traditional power structure has shown that current KRG leaders are still unwilling to tolerate real political opposition or critical journalism. In a situation like this, who can prevent a change from “mister president” into a Kurdish version of Saddam Hussein?

Back to the risks of a presidential system, another factor is the structure of Kurdistan’s political parties. In Kurdistan, all political parties, except the Gorran movement to some extent, are based on a Stalinist model of “centralist democracy,” which means a hierarchy of power from the president to the local committees inside the parties. The structure is not based on a democratic tradition of campaigning and competitions, dialog and real political participation. On the contrary, the parties are just channels to produce charismatic leaders who always expect people’s blind-following. The leaders have proved that they won’t be able to create any hope for building real democracy as much as they are skillful to prompt civil war, stealing from the public budget, and polarizing the societies about some tribal interest and identities.

With this political tradition, it is clear how a strong president could threaten Kurdistan’s hopes for democratic governance. I know it is too naive to think that a parliamentary-elected president could guarantee a democratic government, but parliamentary accountability would make the president’s evolution towards direct dictatorship more difficult.


Kurdistan’s Draft Constitution. Article 60, printed.

Natali Denise. “Iraqi Kurdistan’s Silent Revolution.” Al-Monitor, 16 August. 2013. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.