President Barzani: Only Referendum Can Decide Constitution

RUDAW – 27.5.2013 – ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – After months of public anticipation and political debate over whether to adopt or revise the region’s draft constitution, Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani declared on Sunday that the issue can be resolved “only through a referendum.”

The autonomous region’s two ruling parties – Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – defend the draft constitution. But the opposition insists it must go back to the regional parliament for revisions. “No one has the power to send the constitution back to Parliament except the people,” Barzani declared to a huge, cheering crowd at Erbil’s Shanidar Park, many waving his party’s yellow banner.

The crux of the issue over the constitution is the upcoming presidential election, which is due to be held together with local polls, in September.

Although Barzani has not declared his candidacy, the KDP says it is looking into the legality of a third term, noting it may have a case because the 66-year-old Barzani was directly elected only once. He was first appointed in 2005 by Kurdish MPs, and re-elected by popular vote four years later.

The KDP argues that, because in his first term Barzani was appointed president by Parliament, that should not count against the constitutional clause that says the president can be elected directly by the people for two terms. But the opposition says that, in order for Barzani to remain in office, either existing laws limiting the presidency to two terms must be amended, or a referendum must be held for a new constitution before the presidential polls.

Opposition reaction to Barzani’s speech was quick.

“Putting the constitution through referendum will be nothing but a waste of time,” said Tofiq Rahim, a spokesman of the main opposition Change Movement (Gorran), which has led the charge for constitutional amendments.

“We have said it and will say it again: The constitution should be sent back to parliament, revised, then put through a referendum,” Rahim added. “This constitution does not conform to democracy and the ambitions of the Kurdish people.”

Barzani warned that delaying a public vote on the constitution will only further complicate the situation. “They (opposition groups) have turned the revision of the constitution into a political war and they use it in their own rivalries,” he said. “If it’s a bad constitution people are free not to approve it,” he argued. “Even during the 2009 election we tried to put the constitution through a referendum, but the election commission was not willing,” said Barzani.

In response to opposition groups who say the constitution grants unlimited power to the president, Barzani reminded the crowd: “When the constitution was drafted there were 36 political parties in Kurdistan and all of them approved it.”

The KDP and PUK argue that the draft constitution was approved by the same groups who have since switched to the opposition.

Opposition groups, including Gorran, also demand a switch to a parliamentary system, whereby the president is chosen not by direct vote, but by members of the regional parliament. “The president represents all the people of Kurdistan and not one political party alone,” Barzani told the crowd.  “It does not matter who becomes the president. What matters is who the people will elect for this post, and I am certain that there are many qualified people for this job.” Barzani also shared his thoughts about a recently signed agreement between Baghdad and Erbil, aimed at dampening explosive rows over territory, oil, and the budget. He said he hoped that Baghdad would honor agreements to resolve the issues. “I hope the agreement is honored and they show with deeds that they implement it, because we are all tried of empty promises,” Barzani said.