The call made by Iraqi Kurdistan region President Massoud Barzani to put the recent KRG draft constitution to a referendum was officially rejected by the Kurdish opposition forces in the region. The latter consist of the Movement for Change, the Islamic Group and the Kurdistan Islamic Union, and they have stressed the need to reach a political consensus on the draft.
On Sunday, May 26, Barzani delivered a speech in Erbil in front of a large crowd of his supporters on the occasion of the anniversary of the outbreak of the Kurdish Coughlan revolution, which was led by his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the mid-1970s against the former Iraqi regime.
Following the setback of the Algiers agreement between the shah of Iran and the Iraqi government in 1975, and under the guidance of his father Mullah Mustafa, Barzani, together with his brother Idris Barzani and a group of his comrades, organized the ranks of the peshmerga and established an interim command for the KDP to defend the Kurds and Kurdistan. This set the stage for the outbreak of the Gulan Revolution on May 26, 1976.
Barzani said in a speech he delivered in Kurdish in front of a large crowd of supporters waving yellow flags of the party and photos of Barzani: “There are those who talk about the need to ensure a political consensus on this draft constitution. They forget that this draft was approved at the time by 36 political parties in the Iraqi Kurdistan region; 96 MPs approved the project while only one opposed it. This in itself is described as a political consensus on this draft constitution.”
Barzani added that the draft constitution has given rise to many debates, and there are those who tried to impose their own temperament or narrow partisan interests on this issue, but the constitution is a social contract that concerns all people.
Barzani said: “We have been very flexible recently regarding this issue. We asked all parties to give us their comments and observations on the constitution, but we have not received any positive response. It seems that some of the parties that are objecting to changing the ruling regime from a presidential to parliamentary system have not carefully studied the draft project, as the first article stipulates that the ruling system in the Kurdistan region is parliamentary. I believe that their objection is based on political reasons.”
“We tried to hold a referendum on the draft constitution in conjunction with the July 25 elections in 2009, but the [Electoral] Commission informed us that it was not able to do so, not to mention that we were later on preoccupied by the events and crises that hit Iraq, in addition to the internal problems of the Kurdistan region. We insisted on holding a referendum on the draft law, because we believe that it is the right of the people to decide and that the president of the Kurdistan region does not have the authority to approve the constitution, as it is up to the people to decide,” he added.
Barzani called upon the parties of the Iraqi Kurdistan region not to take away the people’s right to approve the constitution. “In order to distance the constitution from political bickering and partisan interests, I call on all Kurdish parties and forces to think of their people and their future, and not to object to their right to decide. It would be unfair to let political parties decide on the constitution on behalf of the people,” he said.
While Barzani renewed his call to hold a referendum on the draft constitution, the Kurdish opposition forces in the Iraqi Kurdistan parliament (the Movement for Change, the Islamic Group, and the Kurdistan Islamic Union) were swift to express their rejection, demanding a national consensus on the draft project.
“While all opposition forces as well as jurists and intellectuals in the region stress the need to amend the draft constitution and submit it to parliament, Barzani is calling on putting the constitution to a referendum,” the opposition forces said in a statement.
“The decision to hold a referendum on the draft constitution is the prerogative of the parliament of the Kurdistan region, in coordination with the government and the General Election Commission,” added the statement.
Incidentally, the three Iraqi Kurdish opposition forces secured 35 seats out of 111 in the Kurdistan regional parliament during the 2009 elections. The seats were distributed among the opposition forces as follows: The Movement for Change received 25 seats, the Islamic Group was allocated four seats, and the Kurdistan Islamic Union obtained six. These forces strongly oppose a popular referendum on the draft constitution, which would decide whether the constitution is to enter into force or not, depending on the majority votes.
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Adnan Osman, a member of the Movement for Change, said that “the majority of the Kurdish parties support the resubmission of the constitution to parliament, while the KDP, led by Barzani, is the only party opposing these amendments.”
He stressed that “by insisting on holding a referendum on this issue, Barzani is pushing toward fragmenting the Kurdish political forces and highlighting the differences between political parties, at a time when we need political solidarity to face the challenges in the Iraqi Kurdistan region.”
“Should a referendum be held on the draft constitution, the opposition will mobilize the Kurdish street to vote against it. We are calling for the formation of a new committee and the amendment of some of the items, which do not require a lot of time,” he added.
Osman also criticized “[Barzani’s] insistence on voting on the constitution despite the many contradictions it includes,” stressing that “we are demanding a constitution that is based on democratic rules and in accordance with the applicable political system.”
According to Osman, the most prominent demand of the Kurdish opposition is to change the political system in the Kurdistan region from a presidential to a parliamentary system, stressing that “in light of the existing provisions, the Iraqi Kurdistan region is a presidential system, where the president enjoys absolute powers. This is unacceptable in democratic regimes and we are demanding to change these provisions according to the political system.”
For his part, the assistant secretary-general of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, Salah al-Din Babiker, said in an interview with Al-Monitor: “The opposition forces have been demanding to reach a national consensus on the constitution. We demand that a plenary session be held by the different political parties to deliberate on the constitution and on how to amend some of its articles, so that it can be later on put to referendum. We are pushing in this direction, as the constitution needs to be approved by all political parties and forces in the Kurdistan region.”
Furthermore, Zana Roustay, a member of the Union of Kurdistan Parliamentarians and a former member of the Kurdistan regional parliament with the opposition Islamic Group of Kurdistan, said, “If the constitution draft obtained a majority, it would be a simple majority and would only deepen the political differences in the Kurdistan region between the opposition and the regime.”
Speaking to Al-Monitor, he said, “Should the draft constitution be put to a referendum, it will only receive about 55% of the majority votes. We would regret that the first constitution in Kurdish history did not win a landslide majority, which would adversely affect the political reality.”
Roustay stressed the possibility of another scenario, saying, “If the majority voted against the constitution, the project would be canceled permanently. It is imperative that parliament convene and form a committee to draft another constitution.” However, he added, “Drafting the constitution could take many years, and that simple difference on the draft constitution could cost us many human and financial efforts.”
Moreover, observers believe that the response of the opposition forces to Barzani’s decision to put the draft constitution to a referendum was “weak and did not go beyond releasing political statements.”
Journalist and writer Rahman Gharib told Al-Monitor that “in order to gain legitimacy and support for the referendum, Barzani has mobilized the Kurdish street, as he is well aware that the battlefield is the street and not by issuing political statements as the opposition is doing.”
“If the opposition was sincere in its objection, why does it not go down to the street, rally to express its objection by raising banners: No to the constitution!” he added.
The proposed draft constitution of the Kurdistan region consists of 122 articles, and the region has been drafting it for nearly seven years. However, the strong emergence of the opposition on the political scene after the 2009 elections has prevented the two major parties — the Barzani-led KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), led by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani — from putting it to a popular referendum.
Abdel Hamid Zebari is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. A reporter from Erbil who works in print journalism and radio, he has published several reports in local and world media, including Agence France-Press and Radio Free Iraq (Radio Free Europe).