‘Political rape’ in Iraqi Kurdistan: the Democracy that tastes like Dictatorship

Dana Asaad | Sulaymaniyah | 18.07.2013 – Niqash –The fact that Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Massoud Barzani will stay in the job for another two years raises many questions: is this a democracy or dictatorship? A parliamentary or presidential system? Have MPs made the illegal legal for their own ends? Was there “political rape”?

Finally, in a letter published on July 16, the current President of the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani accepted the extension of his term for another two years. And, in a manner of speaking, he did so rather cunningly, by not accepting it. The President’s letter came on the last day before the deadline set for accepting or rejecting a proposed law about how many terms a president may serve in Iraqi Kurdistan.  And with that letter came the end of a long held dream for many locals, of presidential elections held on schedule in the semi-autonomous region.   

In Iraqi Kurdistan, as in many countries, there is a special law that gives every person the right to be President for a limited number of consecutive terms. The current parliamentary session will end very soon; the term of the presidency was also supposed to finish at the end of this month. And elections were supposed to be held on September 21, 2013, to find a new President. Under existing laws, the current President had no right to nominate himself again.

However during the past few months, the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament has been trying to find a legal way around this; the Parliament is headed by the two political parties that dominate the region, Barzani’s own party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, and his allies, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK. When efforts to find a legal way around this failed due to pressure from opposition groups, Parliament, in an agreement between the KDP and PUK, simply decided to extend the President’s reign another two years.

What is happening here is the legitimization of an illegal procedure. Iraqi Kurdistan’s Parliament is supposed to protect and preserve the rule of law here. Instead it’s making decisions that violate the rule of law and legitimizing them. 

It was decided some time ago that the next President should be elected directly by the people of the region, rather than by their representatives in Parliament. Now it has become unclear whether Iraqi Kurdistan has a parliamentary system or a presidential one.

“The main difference between a parliamentary and presidential system is that in a presidential system, the president is separate from the legislative body, but in a parliamentary system, the chief executive, such as a prime minister, is part of the legislative body.A presidential system separates the executive and legislative functions of the government and provides what are commonly called checks and balances to limit the power of both the chief executive and the legislature. In a parliamentary system, the legislature holds the power, and the chief executive must answer to the legislature.” Source:WiseGeek


Iraqi Kurdistan’s President has been enjoying broad powers well beyond those of Parliament. But now Parliament seems to have reversed this and given itself the illegal right to extend the president’s term another two years. And it has done so without any real need: the country is not at war and there is no political crisis or natural disaster to account for this move.

Some have argued that Barzani is the right leader, a strong leader, for Iraqi Kurdistan right now – that even though the region is relatively peaceful and stable, that it “sits in the middle of a metaphorical mine field, with sectarian violence spreading throughout Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey”. But surely it is up to the electorate to decide who the right leader is in this situation?  

The usual procedure for Parliament to pass laws is as follows: draft laws are prepared and then debated twice in Parliament. Following this Parliament votes on the law. If a law wins enough votes, it is submitted to the region’s President for approval. Parliamentary rules also say that the law will be automatically enforced if the President doesn’t reject it within 15 days. A system of checks and balances. This process usually takes weeks. There are also supposed to be at least ten days between the two debates and between them and the voting.

But what happened on June 30 was described by opposition parties in Iraqi Kurdistan as “political rape”. The draft law on this was prepared, discussed and voted upon in the space of a few short hours. The following day it was submitted to the President for approval. And that’s how one of the most illegal operations was concluded by the current government, which has 59 out of a total of 111 seats in the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament.  


According to the law, the region’s President then has 15 days to accept or reject the draft law. However in this case Barzani chose to remain silent until the day before the deadline. At that stage he broke his silence with a letter in which he neither accepted nor rejected the law. In other words, the law could go into effect and the region’s President could remain in his chair. Illegally, and without any elections.

In the letter, there was an attempt to inflame people’s emotions – this is a common tactic of Iraqi Kurdish political leaders. It mentions the President’s struggle as a member of the [Iraqi Kurdish militia] Peshmerga since he was a child. It said that he has never cared for high ranking positions but that he didn’t repeal the law because he respects the Parliament and he didn’t want to  embarrass it, he wants to act in the best interests of the region and so forth and so on.


Barzani became President of Iraqi Kurdistan in 2005 after a strategic agreement between his party and the PUK. In 2009, he reclaimed the position through direct elections. And in doing so, he has now served his two terms. But it seems that the president and his party are unable to assimilate the legality of the electoral process and it is clear they are not ready, nor willing, to give up the presidency, under any conditions. 


Barzani’s desire for power is hardly limited to the Presidency – he has not given up any power within his own organization either. That’s had an obvious impact on senior positions in the region’s government. Barzani’s father was the former leader of the KDP, Mustafa Barzani, and upon his death in 1979, his son became head of the party. He has remained there ever since and over time, his family members – sons, nephews, cousins – have taken more and more senior posts. Examples include son Masrour, who heads the Iraqi Kurdish Security Council and nephew, Najirvan Barzani, currently the KDP’s deputy head and Iraqi Kurdistan’s Prime Minister.

It’s clearly a family dominated party. One might consider this kind of structure normal if one lived in a monarchy, such as Saudi Arabia. But when there’s a “parliamentary system” as there is supposed to be in Iraqi Kurdistan, shouldn’t one be questioning this structure? Why should one family occupy all of the top jobs in the region, and wield undue influence? Why should the region be run by just two political parties?  

There is a game, a political game, being played in this small region and our Parliament is now making up the rules as it goes along. And so Massoud Barzani will be the President here for another two years. At the end of those two years, it seems likely that new laws will be introduced to make the illegal legal yet again. And the most important objective of those laws? That nobody, other than Barzani or one of his closest relatives, have the opportunity to become President of Iraqi Kurdistan.