Reforms in Iraqi Kurdistan Eclipsed by Standoff

Insight – 19.12.2012 – The central Iraqi government and the semiautonomous Kurdistan Region have moved from one dispute to another in the past few years. However, one of the key characteristics of the latest conflict is its marked impact on domestic politics in the Kurdistan Region.

This is not the first time the two had sparred in the past few years. Their long-running disputes over land, oil, national budget and armed forces are well-documented. Yet it is the first time we see Kurdish forces and Iraqi army facing each other on a battleground since the fall of the former regime.

This time, unlike the previous conflicts, the Kurdish opposition parties and the non-partisan media very much threw their weight behind the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the ruling Kurdish parties when the latest tensions with Baghdad flared up, to join in the chorus of Kurdish nationalist sentiments that reduced the conflict to “us” (Kurds) against “them” (the Arab-dominated Iraqi government).Several weeks since the tensions began in mid November, a leading Kurdish opposition figure declared that the standoff was in essence part of “propaganda” for Iraq’s provincial elections scheduled for April 2013. Nawshirwan Mustafa, chief of opposition Gorran (Change) Movement, told Turkish Today’s Zaman on 16 December that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki needs this propaganda, “a political discourse to get the support of Arabs in those areas”.

Implication on Reform

In recent years, calls for political reforms and introduction of anti-corruption measures featured highly on the agenda of the private and opposition media outlets monitored by insight. This has been consistent up until recently. And there were signs these efforts could yield tangible results in the run-up to scheduled provincial and regional parliamentary elections in 2013 – as many observers have been anticipating. In late September, Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani and Nawshirwan Mustafa produced a surprise when they announced after a rare meeting they had agreed on a set of political reforms, including returning the region’s draft constitution to parliament, partly to amend the region’s presidential system to a parliamentary one. This was their first meeting since Mustafa, a former deputy of Talabani in the PUK for three decades, split from the PUK due to power struggle and lack of reforms. Mustafa’s wing in the PUK was dubbed the “reform wing”.

Gorran and PUK together have 52 MPs in the 111-seat regional parliament. Additionally, the two opposition Islamic parties, which have 10 deputies together, also support the amendment of the constitution.

The Sticking Point?

Regional President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, the PUK’s senior partner in the KRG, seems reluctant to amend the constitution. Its leaders argue that there is no legal measure to return the draft to parliament. It has to go to a referendum first, they say.

The draft constitution, which has been criticized for concentrating power in the hands of the regional president, has been awaiting the referendum since its 2009 approval in the Kurdistan Parliament.

With Baghdad and Erbil continuing to send reinforcements to the disputed region, the Iraqi Kurdish political scene is completely dominated by the military presence, mainly felt through the Kurdish media echoing what Kurdish leaders and military commanders have portrayed as “threats from Baghdad”. The need for reform has been replaced by the need for “unity of Kurdish ranks” — a slogan often repeated by politicians now is a catchphrase across the Kurdish media.

Nearly three months after the PUK-Gorran meeting, no practical steps have been taken on the ground. Private Hawlati newspaper said that a follow-up meeting on 11 December between representatives of both parties sought to provide reassurances to the latter that the PUK had not abandoned its September promises. Earlier in December, Talabani visited Mustafa in Sulaymaniyah where they reportedly discussed both the current tensions, and significantly, political reforms.

Reforms for now will remain a sideshow amid exciting footage of Peshemrga forces on duty aired across the partisan televisions.