Erbil, Iraq – Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region is in political and legal limbo over the fate of the autonomous region’s incumbent president, Masoud Barzani, whose tenure is set to end on Wednesday.
If unresolved, the crisis could have destabilising effects for Iraqi Kurds at a critical time, when they are facing an unprecedented threat from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
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The Kurdistan Consultative Council – which, as part of the Kurdish government’s Ministry of Justice, is authorised to provide decisions on legal disputes between government agencies – determined on Monday that Barzani could remain in office for two more years, and the decision has been met with controversy.
The decision was in response to requests from Barzani’s office and the deputy parliament speaker, a senior official of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
It's the politics that decide what happens to the law, rather than the law deciding what happens to the politics. Everything here is politicised, and this issue is a political one.
However, parliament speaker Yusef Sadiq, an official with the Gorran, or Change, Movement- which, after the KDP, is the second largest bloc in parliament, and is leading opposition to Barzani on this matter – has said that the solicitation of an opinion from the consultative council was illegal, as it did not follow standard procedure. According to parliamentary rules, Sadiq said, any such official request must be signed by him.
Barzani, a towering figure in contemporary Kurdish politics, has been serving as president of Iraq’s Kurdish region since 2005. He was last elected in 2009 with nearly 70 percent of the vote. His term ended in August 2013, but the Kurdish parliament extended his tenure for two years.
Barzani’s opponents contend that the letter of the law is clear about the limits to his time in office and have called on him to step down.
“The term of the president that expires on August 20, 2013, will be extended until August 19, 2015, and cannot be extended for a second time,” according to Article 1 of Law number 19 of the Kurdish parliament, passed on June 30, 2013.
But the KDP insists that in the absence of presidential elections, Barzani should be allowed to serve two more years.
“When the country is going through war and elections can’t be held on time, based on the [legal] principle of continuity, the president will continue running his office with the full powers he currently possesses,” Vala Farid, a KDP lawmaker and chairwoman of the legal affairs committee in the Kurdish parliament, told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Sadiq has called for an emergency session on Wednesday to discuss a bill to amend the presidential law and reduce the powers of the president.
“We will take part in that session and hope all blocs who presented bills to amend the law of presidency take part as well,” Rabun Maruf, a Gorran parliamentarian, told Al Jazeera. “The parliament should settle this matter. This is the only legal solution.”
At least 56 out of 111 parliamentarians will have to attend the August 19 session, or legal quorum will not be achieved. The group with the power to tilt the balance either way is the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), but many of its lawmakers may not attend the session due to the potential ramifications of the polarising debate on their survival as a united party. The issue caused tensions among party members in June, amid debate over whether to attend a parliament meeting concerning amendments to the presidential law.
Given the heightened state of tensions surrounding the question of Iraqi Kurdistan’s presidency, many wonder if there can be any legal breakthrough.
“It’s the politics that decide what happens to the law, rather than the law deciding what happens to the politics. Everything here is politicised, and this issue is a political one,” said Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, president of the Middle East Research Institute (MERI), a think tank based in Erbil.
“Kurdistan does not have a constitution and it does not have a high court that is dedicated to its interpretation or looking into such sovereign issues. If this battle became a legal one, there is no mechanism in place to make a final decision on this.”
Amid this backdrop, opposing parties in the Kurdish parliament have been striving to outmanoeuvre each other, raising concerns about the potential impacts on Kurdish Peshmerga troops’ performance in the fight against ISIL. Many Peshmerga fighters are directly or indirectly controlled by political parties.
“Such division and polarisation will have direct knock-on effect on the organisation of Peshmerga, on their morale and ability to fight ISIL,” Ala’Aldeen told Al Jazeera. “Importantly, it will affect the KRG’s image and perception within the international community, which considers the Kurds as partners in the fight against ISIL. If this polarised debate and the deadlock continues, it will undermine our collective efforts against ISIL.”
A range of developments could emerge in the coming days, including Barzani calling for snap elections, or parties reaching a deal that would allow Barzani to remain in office with reduced powers.
If the political factions fail to reach a consensus, the Kurdish region will remain in a period of legal limbo, where the current president could continue to serve, while opponents challenge his legitimacy.
And while the battle is largely a power struggle, some also point to its potential repercussions for democratic development in the region.
“One dimension of this whole affair is the fight for democracy in Kurdistan,” senior KIU official, Abubakir Ali, told Al Jazeera. “The law should be the ultimate reference. If that reference is destroyed or laws are changed because of individuals, then power equations will determine the [outcome], and whoever has more power can impose their interpretations and opinions.”
Follow Mohammed A Salih on Twitter: @MohammedASalih