Erbil, Iraq – A closed session is underway at the Kurdistan regional parliament in response to Iraqi-Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s decision not to extend his presidential term beyond November 1.
The Kurdish leader’s decision casts doubt over who will lead the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) after he leaves office.
The veteran Kurdish leader and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) initially said he would step down after Iraqi Kurds go the polls on November 1, but these elections have now been postponed by eight months, leaving it unclear what would happen to the presidency in the interim.
Before Barzani addressed the closed meeting on Sunday, the head of the KDP parliamentary block, Omid Khoshnaw, said the decision was “not an official resignation according to the constitution”.
“Barzani asked parliament to deal with this issue of distributing his authority between the government and the parliament,” Khoshnaw said, adding “(Barzani) will remain as a symbol for the Kurdish nation”.
Rumours have been circulating for the past two weeks that Barzani, 71, would end his presidency, a post he has held for 12 years. His tenure had officially expired in August 2015.
On Saturday, unnamed politicians and Kurdish media reported that Barzani had sent a letter to parliament, laying out how power should be distributed once he is no longer in office.
Some in the Kurdish region believe that Barzani stepping down is of little consequence – that he will remain in the background and that the Barzani family maintains its grip there, perhaps with his nephew and current KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani taking over the interim period.
Other analysts suggest that this is a small step towards giving Kurdish institutions more sway, empowering parliament that has been suspended since 2015 when a rift between Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the opposition Gorran movement resulted in it being shut down.
The president only recently re-activated parliament to vote through the controversial September 25 referendum on secession, which Barzani wanted to be his legacy.
In 2016, Barzani said: “The day we have an independent Kurdistan, I will cease to be the president of that Kurdistan.”
Barzani went ahead with the referendum against the wishes and warnings of some of his closest allies, most notably the United States.
The referendum resulted in an overwhelming “Yes” but the backlash proved to be more surprising.
Iraqi federal forces, within two days, took over large areas of the disputed territories that the Kurds had controlled for the last few years, causing them to lose oil-rich Kirkuk – the beating heart of any future Kurdish state – whose oil would have allowed the hypothetical state to fund itself.
Kirkuk was among territory seized by Kurdish forces when the Iraqi military abandoned the city in the face of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) advances in 2014, but it is not within the borders of the KRG’s autonomous territory.
Tensions have steadily mounted between Baghdad and the KRG since the referendum, with many warning that it distracted from Iraq’s ongoing fight against ISIL and further destabilised the region.
Baghdad has made it clear that it would re-assert federal control over all borders the KRG currently controls – with Syria, Turkey and Iran – in line with the Iraqi constitution.