MESOP COMMENTARY : President Barzani’s quest for hegemony: Insisting on a presidential system as an example

Kamal Chomani – Kurdistan Tribune – 28. Jan. 2013 – There is near unanimous support for changing the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) semi-presidential system to a parliamentary system. The proposal is backed by the three main opposition parties – the Gorran Movement, Islamic Union and Islamic Group – and by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), as one of the two ruling parties, together with the bulk of the media and public opinion. Everyone supports it … except President Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

At the start of January 2013, 50 members of the Kurdistan parliament – from all the opposition parties and also some PUK MPs – proposed a law project seeking the election of the president of Kurdistan by parliament and limitations to his/her powers. They have also suggested a parliamentary system in which the head of state will have ceremonial powers, as it is the case in Iraq’s political system. (1)

“The President of the Kurdistan Region has the highest executive authority in the Kurdistan Region. He or she is elected by secret ballot in a popular vote every four years and can stand for election for a second term.” (2) That is the current situation. Masoud Barzani, the incumbent Kurdistan Region president, has been in power since 2005. He is also the KDP’s president.

On January 17, 2013, President Barzani met the leaders of the three opposition parties. (3) Barzani had been asking for this meeting for a long time but the opposition parties had refused it because of the two ruling parties’ unserious attitude towards making any radical reforms. In the end, however, they relented because Barzani expressed his seriousness to Mr Ali Bapir, Islamic Group leader. Bapir took the initiative and eventually they all met.

In the meeting, they discussed everything very frankly because the opposition had decided not to go to any ‘meetings for the sake of meetings” with the ruling parties. One of the main topics was the current semi-presidential system which the opposition parties want to change. Eventually they came out from the four walls and, as always, they said: “The meeting was positive, and the meetings will continue.”

During the meeting, however, Nawsherwan Mustafa, Gorran Movement’s leader, clearly told Masoud Barzani that his main condition for further talks is the return of the Draft Constitution to parliament, and changing the presidential system to a parliamentary one. Nawsherwan Mustafa seems to be wary of accepting any of the packages put forward by the two ruling parties. (4)

Afterwards, the KDP and PUK formed a delegation to talk to the opposition parties separately. This KDP and PUK delegation – comprising premier Nechirvan Barzani and Dr Barham Salih, President Talabani’s deputy in the PUK – have met all three main opposition parties. Their latest meeting was with the Gorran leadership in Slemani on January 23. (5)

But, so far, we have not seen any developments.

A recent editorial in the KDP’s mouthpiece, Daily Xebat, showed how strongly the KDP defends a presidential system. In this editorial, the KDP expressed all its irritation against the voices calling for a parliamentary system. (6)

In response to the KDP’s presidential system discourse, the Kurdish media has largely and powerfully elaborated the threats this system poses to Kurdistan and Kurdish society.

One of the most powerful pieces of research published recently is by Dr Sherko Kirmanj, who published his views on Daily Hawlati. (7)

Dr Kirmanj believes that, for the Kurdistan Regional Government, a parliamentary system is the best option. He finally concludes his views as follows:

“For Kurdistanians, it is now better that things have not gone crazy, rationally to review this presidential system which is going to be established. They should do their best to change this system to a democratic, parliamentary one which can have a president but one whose powers should not trespass beyond the ceremonial level and who should represent the nation, not a political party. And this starts by returning the constitution to the parliament today.”

So, the questions is: Why are Masoud Barzani and the KDP insisting on a presidential system?

The KDP’s fundamental nature is hegemonic and it seeks to maintain this hegemony over Kurdistan. The KDP does not practise democracy within its own party. The party is so centralist that even the voices of politburo members have never been listened to. The KDP doesn’t like parliament, and their attitude so far has shown how much they are against the parliamentary process.

The KDP’s main fear is this: in Kurdistan’s parliament the party today has only 30 MPs. In the next general election, the KDP cannot get beyond this number. So, if the president were to be elected by the parliament, the KDP would have to accept the demands of the other parties. Or perhaps the other parties would nominate someone else to the presidency of the Kurdistan region.

The KDP and PUK have agreed between themselves that Iraq’s presidency will go to the PUK, while Kurdistan’s presidency goes to the KDP. On this basis, even when the KRG premier is not from the KDP, the KDP still keeps its hegemony over Kurdistan by holding the highest executive authority in Kurdistan.

But this KDP-PUK agreement may not last because, as Jalal Talabani’s last meeting with Nawsherwan Mustafa revealed, the PUK also supports a parliamentary system. In ‘Post Talabani’, the PUK and Gorran may get closer and then, naturally, they may work together in parliament. The KDP sees this prospect as a threat.

One of the main problems with the KDP is that it sees any discourse different to its own as a threat to the KDP and Masoud Barzani. They should understand that what benefits the process of democracy is important – not preserving the party’s hegemony.  Meantime, the KDP should consider the reality that, if the other political parties of Kurdistan want a ‘conspiracy’ against their president, they can do it by nominating one of their leaders in the presidential elections.