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Kurdistan's Democracy Deficit By: Jerry Weinberger
Weekly Standard | Wednesday, July 22, 2009


On July 25th, the Kurdish region of Iraq is scheduled to have its first major election since 2005. The election is pivotal, and vital to U.S. interests, because it will determine whether Kurdistan takes a first step toward genuine democracy or, through another stolen election, lurches toward presidential dictatorship.

Democracy and stability are progressing in the rest of Iraq. The January 2009 provincial elections were competitive and fair and conducted under rules that made individual candidates accountable to voters. Religious political blocs are splintering. The parliament wrangles about oil because the competing parties and the people know what resources and funds are at stake. Public pressure has forced a crackdown on ministerial corruption and the crooks are going to jail. Messy business--but that's democracy, and democracy in a whole Iraq is the lynchpin of stability in the region, and thus the proper goal of U.S. policy.

Things don't look so good in Kurdistan, where if the crooks went to jail there'd be no one left to run the government, and the public hasn't a clue about oil contracts or anything else that goes on in the black boxes of government. The Kurdistan esteemed in the west as a beacon of democracy and good government is a myth. I'll bet the U.S State Department believes the multi-storied building frames that dot the city of Sulaimani are signs of economic development. They're not. They're giant, never-to-be finished piles of concrete used to funnel public funds into the private pockets of the ruling party. The democratic deficit in Kurdistan stems from the collusion of the two corrupt political parties that have governed the region since the end of a bitter civil war in 1998: the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the north, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in the south. The parties are organized on the Soviet model, each with a powerful politburo calling the shots from the top. The KDP, headed by Massoud Barzani, is more rigid and conservative and nepotistic and enjoys the support of powerful landowners and tribal leaders. The PUK, headed by Jalal Talabani, was in its origins a coalition of progressive and socialist groups and as a result is still today a looser political structure than the KDP.

The parties exert control through their vast and coercive networks of patronage that descend from the two politburos through the government, the economy, the institutions of civil society, and to almost every family in Kurdistan (since almost one in four Kurds is employed by the government).

In the 2005 election for the Kurdish Regional Government, the two parties joined, along with some smaller parties, into a single electoral list. The purpose was to stifle opposition and to divide the political spoils prior to the election, and then use their joint patronage to guarantee the result. Even though there was no serious opposition, there were reports of widespread voting fraud.

Since that election, and against long and dangerous odds, a serious opposition developed within the looser PUK, led by the first Deputy Secretary General and co-founder of the PUK, Nawshirwan Mustafa, and other courageous and honest former members of the politburo desirous of real democracy and sickened by the monumental corruption in both parties. (One can tell they're honest just from the shabby clothes they wear and the tiny, book-strewn houses in which they live.) In March of this year, they formed a rival PUK election list called "Change."

Change admires classical Western liberalism and the American Founding and advocates fiscal transparency in party, government, and business; a professional civil service; election-law reform; and a vast contraction of the public sector. In its platform, Change proposes to "support the rule of law and enhance the principle of separation of the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary authorities while consolidating the independence of the judiciary." In today's Kurdistan, that's a constitutional revolution for the better.

The opposition stands boldly against the grotesque corruption: when a Change leader disclosed to the press that the Kurdish Government gives the two parties each $35 million per month for "expenses," the Finance Minister could but sputter that he "was not permitted to discuss the exact amount given to the parties."

But most important, Change respects the supreme authorities of the federal government and wants comity with Baghdad and resolution of Kirkuk according to the terms of the federal constitution, and, while desiring strong local government, wants no truck with the bellicose nationalism and go-it-alone policy pursued by the ruling parties, especially the KDP.

Change is especially popular in the more liberal south, but it expects to surprise in the more conservative and traditional north. That's why the ruling parties have again combined for the election. With so much at stake, Change fears that the unified party Goliath will again rig the election.

Already in the south, Change endures the vast coercive power of the PUK patronage machine. Hundreds of people, many of them policemen and security guards and low-level officials, have been fired from their jobs for siding with Change. The two parties control the mass media and have threatened to cut salaries of staffers of an independent radio station, established by the United States, who dare to stray from the prescribed line.

The parties also control the means of physical coercion: the militias, the police, and the secret service. Perhaps most important, Change cannot trust the Independent High Election Commission of Iraq. Its Director General in Baghdad is a Barzani loyalist. The Commission's record so far in Kurdistan: supervision of the suspect 2005 election and a pathetic fine of $2,500 just levied against the united parties for a raft of campaign violations.

A stolen election will be bad enough: but not nearly as bad as the Presidential putsch Massoud Barzani is hatching to squash the first glimmer of democracy in Kurdistan.

After the legally mandated June 1 session-end of the Kurdish National Assembly, Barzani forced an extension of its deliberations. He then rammed through a drastic revision of the Kurdish Constitution that creates a presidential system with an impotent parliament and vast and unchecked power at the top. The new constitution also extends his possible terms for another eight years.

Barzani is doing all he can to rush a referendum on the constitution: limiting the time for public debate on the document will of course improve its chances of electoral success. If that happens and the banana-republic constitution is "voted in," the Kurds will lose such liberties as they have to Massoud Barzani. Barzanistan will not be good for the rest of Iraq. The intemperate president thrives on tension with Baghdad, and he'll be alone at the wheel of state in the delicate negotiations necessary to settle the incendiary issues of Kirkuk, the disputed territories, and the extent of Kurdish independence: all matters that endanger the integrity of Iraq.

If the Kurds want to submit to Massoud Barzani, there is nothing the U.S. can or should do about it. Change has called for international and U.S. monitoring of the parliamentary election. Let's hope it materializes. Our interest in a whole and democratic Iraq, and the U.S. blood and treasure invested in that cause, dictate a full-throttle effort to ensure that the Kurdish opposition has a fair opportunity to head off disaster.


Jerry Weinberger is Professor of Political Science at Michigan State University and an adjunct fellow of the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C. He just returned from four months of consulting for the American University of Iraq-Sulaimani.


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