On Nov. 1, 2017, President Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Regional Government, in accordance with legislation passed by the Kurdistan Parliament several days before, stepped down and devolved many of the powers of his office jointly to his nephew Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani, the speaker of Parliament and the Judicial Council. The bill at first appeared to be a significant concession by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party to relieve the impasse surrounding his extralegal retention of office and raised the possibility of democratic reforms. However, it is instead an attempt by the KDP to maintain its dominance over the KRG in the wake of the independence referendum, and for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan to preserve what remains of its long-standing and exclusive power-sharing relationship with the KDP in an increasingly volatile and polarized political environment.After Oct. 16, when the Iraqi central government began to reassert federal authority over the disputed territories in retaliation for the KRG’s independence vote, confidence in the KRG as a political system plummeted and calls increased in volume and urgency for President Barzani, the referendum’s mastermind, to resign. In addition to driving a wedge between the KDP and the PUK, the referendum galvanized the opposition. The Gorran Movement – the KRG’s second-largest political party, which was expelled from the government in 2015 – along with other Sulaimaniyah-based parties Komal and the Alliance for Justice and Democracy, called for dissolving the government and establishing a “national salvation government” to replace what they regard as a dysfunctional, partisan oligarchy. However, on Oct. 25, Gorran agreed to return to Parliament after receiving guarantees that a legislative proposal would provide for President Barzani’s resignation and the dissolution of the presidency.
While Gorran approved of Barzani’s decision to step down from the presidency, it raised objections to the proposal’s content and to the legislative process that drafted it, which Gorran claimed merely packaged a joint KDP-PUK decree as a law to be retroactively approved by Parliament. The proposal was drafted in an inter-politburo summit between the KDP and PUK, along with the Islamic Union. While devolving the president’s powers under the 2005 Presidency Law, which granted the president of the KRG expansive executive powers, the new bill would only remain in effect until the next round of presidential and parliamentary elections, which had been scheduled for Nov. 1 but were postponed for eight months in late October by act of a PUK and KDP-dominated Parliament. This draft law provided that until elections, “no law or decision shall be made in contradiction of this law,” precluding amendments to the 2005 law until at least June 2018. During the Oct. 29 session, these provisions raised objections from Gorran lawmakers, who have consistently demanded that the Presidency Law be repealed and that elections proceed on Nov. 1. Protests from the Gorran and Komal delegations demanding further debate before a vote were met with violence from KDP MPs and journalists, and later that evening KDP supporters stormed the Parliament hall, attacking journalists and threatening opposition MPs while crowds in Dohuk and Zakho burned Gorran and PUK party offices.
According to the new law, Nechirvan Barzani in his capacity as prime minister will assume most of the powers of the presidency, including the authority to represent the KRG at the federal level and abroad. Yet, in the spirit of prior power-sharing agreements between the KDP and PUK, he will share the powers to dissolve Parliament, declare a state of emergency, and assume legislative powers during emergencies with Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani of the PUK. Therefore, in addition to ensuring that the Barzani family remains in control of the KRG’s legal institutions, the PUK can also lay claim to a shared presidential mandate.
The law also delegates the power to veto all or part of legislation passed by Parliament, to the “speakership” of Parliament – notably not to the “speaker.” This terminology indicates that the KDP and PUK elites who drafted the law intend for these duties to fall jointly to Secretary of Parliament Begard Talabani of the PUK and to Deputy Speaker Jafar Eminki – a member of the KDP who has assumed the duties of the speaker in the absence of Speaker Yusuf Mohammad. Yusuf Mohammad, of Gorran, has been prevented from entering the capital Irbil since Barzani forcibly dissolved Parliament in 2015. Therefore, the text of the law circumvents the issue of Yusuf Mohammad’s readmission to Parliament, which the KDP has steadfastly resisted. Additionally, the KRG’s Judicial Council, led by and comprised mostly of KDP loyalists with some seats reserved for PUK members, will be able to appoint judges and public prosecutors.
The text of the new law does not, however, order the resignation of Deputy President Kosrat Rasoul of the PUK, whose own term expired in 2015. Furthermore, it does not delegate the president’s duties as general commander of the peshmerga or his supervisory powers over the KRG Security Council. The latter appears to be a compromise between Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and the council’s chair, Masrour Barzani, PM Barzani’s cousin and Massoud Barzani’s son, who is unlikely to accept Nechirvan Barzani’s authority over his own paramilitary units. It is possible that Massoud Barzani’s Cabinet, which the statute enjoins to “continue with its duties and responsibilities,” will simply retain these powers. Additionally, Barzani remains the president of the KDP politburo, and therefore will continue as a de facto source of political and military authority within the KDP-controlled areas of the Kurdistan Region.
Massoud Barzani will also remain in his capacity as the head of the High Political Council. The HPC is the “grand coalition” that succeeded the High Referendum Council, the body established to carry out the independence referendum in the Kurdistan Region. It is comprised mostly of KDP members and a few PUK executives close to the KDP, such as Mala Bakhtiar and Kosrat Rasul. It has no accountability to Parliament or any other official institution, but nonetheless declared it would “protect the stability of Kurdistan from any type of threat” and represent the Kurdistan Region in Baghdad and abroad. Therefore, Barzani will remain the head of a parallel government that can act independently of the KRG’s legally established institutions. However, the prime minister and deputy prime minister have the advantage of being recognized as the legitimate heads of government by the international community, including the United States, which had been the primary external source of President Barzani’s power and legitimacy in the past three years in lieu of voter confidence.
As Barzani steps down as president, the power of the KDP and PUK politburos will continue to eclipse that of the KRG’s democratic institutions. Yet notwithstanding continued bipartisan participation in the Cabinet, Parliament and HPC, the Iraqi federal government’s reassertion of control over the region’s border points, airports and the oil-rich disputed territories has resulted in a weakened KRG that has lost its sources of revenue – and therefore there are fewer incentives for Kurdish parties to cooperate with each other. The fallout from the referendum empowered hard-line factions within the PUK politburo who used the KDP’s failed gamble as a pretext to cleanse Irbil of KDP influence. The president’s resignation has exposed similar fault lines within the KDP. Prime Minister Barzani derives the greatest benefit from the devolution of presidential powers. Yet although he maintains cordial relations with PUK moderates and has the diplomatic experience to control the referendum’s damage to relationships with the United States, Iran and Turkey, he is confronted with Massoud and Masrour Barzani’s increasingly hawkish stance on their party’s relationship with the PUK. The use of provocative rhetoric, including accusations that PUK security forces committed “treason” for withdrawing from Kirkuk, and the eruption of violence by KDP supporters in the wake of Massoud Barzani’s transfer of executive power has escalated tensions between the parties. This will further polarize moderates and invigorate hard-liners – placing Nechirvan Barzani in the awkward position of putting out fires started by his cousin and uncle.
Yet, while moderate KDP and PUK elites attempt to preserve their ties, the opposition will continue to regard this exclusive partnership as the source of the failure of KRG governance. Citing the violence at Parliament on Oct. 29, Gorran has rejected the prime minister’s invitation for Gorran ministers and MPs to return to the government and renewed its calls to dissolve the KRG and establish a provisional government to oversee a transition to a parliamentary democracy. Yet while Gorran has the ability to mobilize massive strikes and demonstrations, it cannot compete with the ability of the KDP and PUK to bargain through the use of force. Thus, Gorran and other Sulaimaniyah-based opposition parties may be forced to align with more powerful brokers in the PUK in order to regain political influence – and in the process subvert their objective to build a parliamentary democracy independent of intense partisan influence.
Massoud Barzani’s resignation and the devolution of executive power from the presidency to the KRG’s other political institutions is not a substantial change in the KRG’s governance. Rather, it is an attempt by moderates in the KDP and PUK to salvage what remains of their mutually beneficial power-sharing relationship. However, the independence referendum has changed the political landscape, bringing latent rivalries to the fore and transforming the KRG from a predictable, relatively stable, bipolar system to an unpredictable, unstable, multipolar system in which the KDP and PUK are divided against each other and within themselves.
Megan Connelly is a Ph.D. and J.D. candidate at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Follow her on Twitter @meganconnelly48. This commentary first appeared at Sada, an online journal published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (www.carnegieendowment.org/sada).
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 11, 2017, on page 7.