Making It Up As They Go Along: The Long, Troubled History of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Presidency
The Iraqi Kurdish President’s term expired yesterday. And the political actors in the semi-autonomous, northern region have been arguing about whether the current President, Massoud Barzani (pictured), should stay or go for more than two months now, in the run up to this expiration. Nobody has been able to come to any kind of agreement and it looks as though, despite the best efforts of many, the debate will go on.
But in fact this particular debate has been going on for far longer than the current episode. The question of who should get the job of president in Iraqi Kurdistan has been a source of friction and controversy since the 1990s.
In 1992, six months after the Iraqi Kurdish region was declared partially independent of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Baghdad, the first elections were held. This also included elections for the position of President. The candidates included Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, Jalal Talabani, head of the region’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party, or PUK, Uthman Abdul-Aziz of a major Islamic party and Kurdish politician, Mahmoud Othman, who is now an independent but was formerly the head of the Iraqi Kurdish socialist party. None of the candidates managed to get over the required 50 percent of the votes needed to become President.
“Barzani’s votes were a little less than Talabani but neither of them reached the required threshold,” Othman recalls in an interview with NIQASH. “That was why the presidential elections were held again after two weeks, then they were postponed for two months, and in the end they were not held at all.”
The Parliament itself was almost evenly divided between MPs from the PUK and MPs from the KDP and many decisions were simply hammered out between the two party leaderships, before they even reached Parliament. The one decision that nobody could make though, was about who should be President.
“The problem was between Talabani and Barzani,” Othman told NIQASH. “Neither of them would have accepted the other as leader – even if a second round of elections had been held.”
In 1994, as a result of ongoing tensions between the PUK and the KDP, a four-year-long civil war broke out in Iraqi Kurdistan. After this conflict ended with the signing of a truce in 1998, the semi-autonomous region was basically split in two. Although the two parties agreed to share power and income, in reality they were two governments ruling over two relatively separate zones, with the KDP’s “yellow” zone in Erbil and Dohuk and the PUK’s “green” zone in Sulaymaniyah; the zones were described as these colours after the parties’ own symbolic colours.