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Could Barzani's resignation mark the end of family rule in Kurdistan?

After 26 years of KDP-PUK leadership, it’s time to move beyond the era of family rule and build institutions in the Kurdistan region

On 29 October, the parliament in Iraq's Kurdistan region (KRG) held a historical session in which President Massoud Barzani's resignation letter was read out and his presidential authorities were handed over to the parliament, the government, and the judiciary.

"I refuse to continue the position of president of the Region after 1 November 2017," said Barzani.

His resignation is an imperative step towards a new beginning in the Kurdistan region. For the past 26 years, Kurdish arch rivals the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union Party (PUK) have dominated the Kurdish political scene. Of course, when we speak of these two parties, we essentially speak of two families, the Barzanis and Talabanis.

 It's time to overcome the era of family rule and build institutions in the Kurdistan Region

Recent developments, however, have specifically proven the incapability and unaccountability of the family-based political authority and governance model in the Kurdistan region. The over-reliance of the political system on two families has made Kurdish institutions and state-building process fragile.

Lesson learned. It's time to move beyond the era of family rule and build institutions in the Kurdistan region.

Paying the price

Compared to the Middle East's authoritarian leaders, Barzani needs to be credited for his resignation at this difficult moment in Kurdish history. The symbolism is important in the region. The fact that a political leadership takes responsibility for its actions and pays the price for the consequences needs to be celebrated.

Unfortunately, the political elites in the Middle East aren't accustomed to paying the price for their miscalculations or decisions, a fact that has imposed a heavy cost on their people.

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From the defeats of the Arab powers in the Six Day War with Israel in 1967 to Saddam Hussein's catastrophic decision to go to war with Iran, and later to invade Kuwait, causing two Gulf wars, the political elites in the Arab world have rarely shown maturity in taking responsibility for their disastrous decisions.

Thus, Barzani stepping down from the presidency represents a novelty in this gloomy picture of political irresponsibility and impunity among Middle Eastern elites.  

Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Massoud Barzani (L) waves to his fighters as he walks to his headquarters in the northern Iraqi town of Salahaddin 3 September 1996 (Reuters)

Peak of political failure

The fall of Kirkuk and the unexpected withdrawal of Peshmerga forces in other disputed territories - liberated from Islamic State (IS) in 2014 - exacerbated Baghdad-KRG tensions that started back in early 2013 over sharing of oil revenues.

Rather than serving as a uniting glue, the referendum and its aftermath has further fragmented Kurdish politics, particularly between the KDP and PUK.

The referendum move was a strategic mistake, not because it was a distraction from the fight against IS as the US State Department claimed but also because KRG was and is at its peak of political failure, financial crisis, corruption, and divisions.

The over reliance of the political system on two families (Barzani and Talabani) have made the Kurdish institution and state-building process fragile

Despite local polarisations over the referendum, 92.7 percent of the voters backed independence.

Prior to the referendum move, Iraqi Kurds enjoyed a quasi-state within the federal state of Iraq. However post-referendum, the Kurdistan region has not only lost control of roughly 51 percent of disputed lands and major oil fields since 16 October. Further, its pre-2014 status quo is at stake as the Iraqi military makes further advances. 

More alarmingly, family power monopolisation and divisions, large-scale corruption, poor governance, the absence of a functional parliament, divided Peshmerga forces, and unhealthy family-oriented diplomacy have all undermined the pre-2014 status quo. 

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Meantime, the KRG froze the referendum results in an attempt to de-escalate the Baghdad-KRG conflict and resume dialogue with the central government. Although the current administration has entirely lost its credibility and accountability to carry out such tasks with Baghdad, this could be a positive move towards dialogue and peaceful negotiations.

Baghdad overplaying its hands

But a new period can't come into being solely as a result of the Kurdish endeavour. Baghdad should play a constructive role. It appears that Baghdad is enjoying a moment of hubris after its quick victory in Kirkuk and other disputed territories. It is overplaying its hand.

Instead of engaging in a constructive negotiations with the KRG to resolve the tension, it has adopted a triumphalist tone, as a result of which it treats the concept of negotiations as a one-way street. It has issued one demands or ultimatum after another as a precondition to start talks with the Kurds.

By any account, this is a short-sighted approach.

Kurdish riot police officers stand in front of the Kurdistan Parliament in Erbil, Iraq 29 October 2017 (Reuters)

The KRG's lost ground by no means vindicates Baghdad's way of doing politics or its governance model. Baghdad shouldn't add deepening Kurdish grievances to already grave Sunni marginalisation. Such an approach will only set the stage for Iraq’s next big crisis. 

Iraq can’t deal with its crisis of governance and rising sectarianism by marginalising two major components of Iraqi society, Kurds and Sunni Arabs.

Given this historical transition, Iraqi Kurds do not need supreme leaders and power figures

In this respect, Iraqi Kurds are and have always been vital component of post-2003 political configuration in Iraq, and have immensely contributed to the making of the "new Iraq". Numerous examples can prove this including the peshmerga's significant contributions to the fight against IS. 

It's unfortunate that the two sides are pointing their guns at each other now after they fought side by side to eradicate IS from their country only very recently.

National hero

Indeed, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took a tough approach on the Kurdish referendum and made himself a national hero by protecting Iraq's territorial integrity.

After seizing back pretty much all pre-2014 disputed territories, Iraq's security forces have made further advancement toward restoring the 2003 border map in addition to moving to take the Turkish border town Fishkhabour, which has always been under the KRG's control. 

Iraq's increasing demands to control Fishkhabour will not help de-escalation and would open doors for Turkish influence in the overall geopolitical game. 

The Kurdish push for the independence isn’t the cause of Iraq's ills. Rather it is a symptom of Iraq's dysfunctional and sectarian political system and governance model

In the meantime, Prime Minister Abadi’s bullish stance may lead to the marginalisation of Kurds, especially with Iran and Turkey playing significant roles in post-referendum developments. And this would not be to the advantage of Iraq, given its ongoing struggle to build an inclusive society for all since 2003. 

If Abadi seriously wants to protect the constitution from any violations, his real job is then to set paths towards an inclusive, functional, democratic federal Iraq in which Shias, Sunnis, Kurds and other ethno-religious communities enjoy their rights without discrimination.

This latest crisis also provides an opportunity for all Iraqis to reflect on their dysfunctional political system and governance model, which respectively fuelled Al-Qaeda’s insurgency, led to the emergence of the Islamic State, and motivated the Kurds to push for independence.

We shouldn't lose the sight of the real problem in Iraq. The Kurdish push for independence isn't the cause of Iraq's ills. Rather it is a symptom of Iraq's dysfunctional and sectarian political system and governance model.

Political maturity

Unfortunately, political maturity is in short supply in the Middle East. That being so, the resolution of the latest crisis requires better international engagement to bring the parties together.

However international actors, particularly the United States, have poorly managed both the pre- as well as post-referendum periods.

The fact that the US could only suggest an alternative proposal to holding the referendum two days before the vote took place illustrates the poor response to the referendum and its aftermath by international actors.

The cost has been turning two US allies - Baghdad and Erbil - against each other, and creating instability in the most stable part of Iraq, which hosts close to two millions IDPs (mostly Sunni Arabs) from the rest of Iraq.

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Without better, more structured engagement by international actors in the resolution of the dispute, the crisis could get out of hand and see Iraq join the league of failed states in the near future. 

Kurdish independence

Kurdish independence is not something that can simply be declared. It has to be earned. It is time to find exit mechanisms from the Baghdad-KRG crisis and move forward.

Yet much more needs to be done. The KRG still struggles to pay its civil servant salaries with arrears going back to August. It struggles to respect freedom of speech and build functioning institutions. It is time for the Iraqi Kurds to step into a new chapter towards free and fair elections, good governance and democracy.

The Kurdistan region, whether independent or semi-autonomous, needs institutions, inclusiveness, and social, cultural and political democracy. 

Given this historical transition, Iraqi Kurds do not need supreme leaders and power figures. Rather an immediate roadmap towards reformed institutions and a functional democratic parliament are key to ending family authoritarianism in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

While doing so, the Iraqi Kurdish leadership and society should avoid repeating the bloody experience of the 1990s, during which Kurdistan went through a civil war which culminated in splitting its administration into two: one centred in Erbil and led by the KDP, the another one in Sulaymaniya and led by the PUK.

-Bahra Saleh is Researcher at the American University of Iraq,  (AUIS).  Prior to that she worked as Research and Programme Officer at the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at AUIS. She holds an MA degree in Middle Eastern Studies from the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at Lund University, Sweden.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Demonstrators gather in the streets in support of Kurdish president Massoud Barzani in Duhok, Iraq 29 October 2017 (Reuters)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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