Iraqi Kurdistan Needs a Referendum to Resolve its Political Crisis

Iraqi Kurdistan is often hailed as a democratic, reliable, and effective partner for Western powers engaging with Iraq, but the political crisis that has overtaken the region this year has exposed just how fragile and problematic the Iraqi Kurdish political system really is. The major political parties have bickered for months over the fate of President Massoud Barzani, whose term ended on August 20, but have managed only to further exacerbate the political crisis facing the region. The United States is reluctant to get involved in brokering an agreement between the parties, for fear of appearing to take sides. Yet the solution is simple: where the politicians have failed, the people must step in. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) could hold a referendum to allow the people to decide whether the region should have a parliamentary or a presidential system. The United States could persuade the KRG to follow this course by offering greater military, financial, and political support based on successful reform to the Kurdish political system.

A protest movement has gathered momentum in the Kurdish region over the past two weeks and, in some cases, has become violent. Public sector workers in the region have not been paid for three months, putting thousands of families through financial hardship. The frustration over this issue has collided with anger over the failure to deal with the expired presidency of Massoud Barzani. One protest, on October 8, gathered around the Millennium Hotel in Sulaimani, where political leaders conducted crisis talks that ultimately failed. Other protests targeted political party offices, including those of Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). While protestors threw stones at KDP offices in Kalar on October 10, Human Rights Watch reported that “armed men opened fire from inside the building,” killing two unarmed protestors. KDP officials, meanwhile, blame the protestors for the deaths. Similar deaths in the midst of chaotic protests took place in Qaladza (Fort Diza) and Raparin, with five protestors killed in total.

The KDP responded by blaming the second largest political party in the Kurdish parliament, Gorran, for inciting the violence and summarily dismissed their political leaders from parliament, barring some of them from the capital city of Erbil. In a statement, the KDP political bureau said that Gorran planned the demonstrations “to sabotage the presidency extension situation and attack KDP offices.” The KDP has long been frustrated by Gorran, which it believes has behaved more like an opposition party than a partner in a coalition government. But with only thirty-eight seats in a parliament of 111, the KDP does not have the right to unilaterally dismiss Gorran from its senior political posts.

Speaker of the Iraqi Kurdish Parliament and Gorran member Yousif Mohammed Sadiq has accused the KDP of staging an occupation of the capital city of Erbil and attempting to mount a coup d’état against the Kurdish parliament. For Gorran, coming second in Kurdistan’s 2013 parliamentary elections has not translated into real political power. Politics and economic interests in Iraqi Kurdistan have long been divided between two cronyistic political parties—the KDP and the PUK, who fought a bloody civil war in the mid-1990s and divided power between themselves in the aftermath. In this two party state, Gorran emerged as an expression of popular frustration and anger with Iraqi Kurdistan’s corrupt political and economic system. Gorran has tried to use the political crisis around the nonpayment of salaries and the expiration of President Barzani’s term as leverage to sway the distribution of power in favor of the parliament.

But at stake here is the future of the Kurdish political system. Iraqi Kurdistan’s political elites so far have resorted to bargaining among themselves over the distribution of power, rather than listening to the Kurdish polity. The citizens of Iraqi Kurdistan are better placed to decide if they want a presidential system, in which a powerful president is directly elected by the population, or whether they would prefer a parliamentary system in which a president with symbolic powers is elected by parliament.

As populations across the Middle East increasingly lose faith in authoritarian political systems, groups such as the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) have risen to fill the legitimacy gap. The KRG is the latest government at risk of abandoning its democratic ideals and losing the public’s trust. In the last two weeks the KDP has shuttered independent and opposition media outlets and expelled journalists from the KDP dominated cities of Erbil and Dohuk, contrary to both Kurdish and Iraqi law. Today, a KRG in which the president continues to govern as though his term has not expired, in which representatives of the second largest party have been summarily dismissed from their positions, in which peaceful protestors have been killed, and in which journalists are being penalized for reporting on the crisis. These are characteristics of the many neighboring Arab countries from which the Kurds have long sought to differentiate themselves. Authoritarian measures risk further escalating the internal conflict in the region, potentially threatening the government’s legitimacy.

The United States has expressed concern at the situation in Iraqi Kurdistan, particularly its fears that the conflict could distract from the war against ISIS and impact the humanitarian crisis taking place in the region. But the United States can do more to prevent Iraqi Kurdistan from unravelling. By strongly advocating for a population-oriented solution—such a referendum—and by promising the region greater military, financial, and political assistance conditional on the successful resolution of this dispute, the United States could forestall an ugly, protracted conflict in a territory crucial to US interests in the Middle East. 

Nussaibah Younis is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center at the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts:

Image: Iraqi Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani speaks during a ceremony in Dohuk, northern Iraq August 3, 2015. (Reuters)