Is Massoud Barzani step­ping down or step­ping up?

The Daily Star (Lebanon) - - OPINION - ME­GAN CON­NELLY

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 pow­er­shar­ing 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

The power of the KDP and PUK polit­buros will con­tinue to eclipse that of the KRG The use of provoca­tive rhetoric has es­ca­lated ten­sions be­tween the par­ties

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).

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