Barzani Presses for Referendum On Iraqi Kurdistan Constitution

Iraqi Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani still faces considerable opposition to putting the draft constitution to a referendum.

al-monitor An Iraqi Kurdish resident casts his ballot at a box during the regional parliament elections of the Kurdistan region in Baghdad, July 25, 2009. Photo by REUTERS/Saad Shalash.

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May 23, 2013

Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, recently intensified his efforts to put the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s draft constitution to a referendum. It is clear he is committed to making this happen, regardless of objections by the Kurdish opposition in the Parliament seeking to amend the draft before the referendum.

Over the past few days, Barzani has held meetings and discussions in his headquarters in Erbil with Kurdish political parties, with the exception of the opposition powers: the Movement for Change, the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan.

Barzani also met with the committee tasked with drafting the constitution. The official website of the presidency noted in a statement that Barzani has asked the members of the Constitutional Review Committee during a meeting to relay their impressions and opinions about the draft.

The media statement reported Farsat Ahmad — the secretary of Iraqi Kurdistan’s parliament, the chairman of the Constitutional Review Committee and a member of the Barzani-led Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) — as saying that the committee was set up following a unanimous decision by all parliamentary coalitions, which represent all national affiliations, religions and political powers.

Ahmad provided a thorough explanation of the drafting and review phases, noting that they had consulted 40 constitutions from around the world and that the draft took seven years to write. In addition, during the drafting and review phases, 5,000 proposals from the different factions of Kurdish society were sent to the committee before putting the draft to a vote in Parliament. The draft gathered 96 votes out of 111 total, and 900,000 copies of the draft were printed and delivered to Kurdish families through food-distribution agents.

The statement affirmed that the committee tasked with drafting the constitution acknowledged the necessity of making the draft’s content public. The committee called for an end to deceit in regard to the content of the articles.

Prior to the meeting with the committee, Barzani met with representatives of all political powers and coalitions in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, with the exception of the opposition powers: the Movement for Change, the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan.

According to a statement issued by the presidency of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, the meeting dealt with the internal situation, the constitution and the elections. The statement indicated that Barzani stressed the need for a constitution for the Iraqi Kurdistan Region to promote the political process and administrative and sovereign institutions.

Masrour Barzani, the son of Massoud Barzani and the region's national-security adviser, held a large rally in Erbil during which he confirmed that the Kurdistan Region’s draft constitution has gone through all of the legal stages and must be subject to a referendum, as stated by Kurdistan Satellite TV, which is affiliated with the KDP.

In response to a question from Al-Monitor about Barzani’s action in the region regarding the draft constitution, Fouad Hussein, head of Kurdistan's presidential office, said that “It is clear that President Barzani is convinced that the draft constitution has gone through all of the legal stages and consequently may not be referred back to the committee for revising.”

Hussein confirmed that the request made by Kurdish opposition forces to send the constitution back to Parliament may not be satisfied, since the constitution was not drafted by the Parliament but by a special committee called the Committee for Revising the Draft Constitution of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.

He added, “Some political friends and opposition forces are proposing the referral of the draft constitution to Parliament, but Parliament did not draft the constitution. Rather, a competent committee developed the draft and the Parliament voted on it with an overwhelming majority and then requested that a referendum be held to ratify it.”

Hussein stressed to Al-Monitor that “all competent parties, following discussions with Barzani, confirmed that it is not legally admissible to refer the constitution back to parliament.”

According to Hussein, Barzani wants to postpone any amendment to the draft constitution until after the public referendum. Hussein explains, “This also raises the question of whether amendments may be introduced to the draft constitution or to the ratified constitution. Furthermore, all parties and legal experts participating in the drafting of the constitution said that at this stage, the constitutional clauses may not be rewritten, since this reverts to the authority capable of drafting these clauses and ratifying them.”

Hussein also confirmed that “All parties acknowledged that the constitution must be first examined by the people, and following said examination, it would be possible to amend it if a parliament consensus is reached or by virtue of a parliamentary majority.”

On the other hand, Hussein denied that Barzani’s objective behind his determination to hold a referendum would be to pave the way for submitting his candidacy to run a third time for president of the Kurdistan Region, after having served two four-year terms. Hussein continues, “All discussions are about whether it is possible or not to refer the draft constitution back to the parliament, and all legal experts participating in the drafting of the constitution pointed out to Barzani in a meeting that the referral of the draft constitution to parliament is contrary to the law.”

Article 64 of the draft constitution specifies that the president of the Kurdistan Region shall be elected for a four-year term, beginning on the date on which he takes the constitutional oath. The president may be re-elected for a second term as of the date the constitution enters into force.

Furthermore, Kurdish opposition forces fear that Barzani will nominate himself for two other terms following the referendum, but Hussein confirmed that “So far, no decision has been made in this respect.”

Yet, even if the presidency of the Kurdistan Region decided to put the draft constitution to a referendum, the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC) needs months to arrange for such referendum, according to Ali Qader, an IHEC member. Qader noted, “So far, we have not been notified to hold a referendum on the constitution of the Kurdistan Region. Following our notification, we will declare how much time we need.”

The IHEC had announced on Monday, May 20, that May 23 to June 4 had been set as the period for accepting the candidacy of entities and parties participating in the Kurdistan Region’s presidential and parliamentary elections set for Sept. 21.

In this case, even if the constitution is subjected to a referendum, such a referendum may not be held before the Kurdistan Region’s presidential and parliamentary elections. This dispels the opposition’s fears that Barzani’s objective behind this may be to pave the way for submitting his candidacy for the presidency of Kurdistan Region.

On the other hand, Kurdish opposition groups insist on the need to introduce amendments before holding the referendum.

Yusif Mohammed Sadeq, head of the political-research chamber of the Movement for Change, said that they prepared a draft amendment to this draft constitution in agreement with their two allies in the opposition: the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan.

The most important requests of the opposition forces are to retain a parliamentary political system in the Kurdistan Region, to consecrate administrative decentralization and to ensure the rights of all the components of the region.

In this respect, Article 1 of the draft constitution specified the following: “The Iraqi Kurdistan Region is a region within the federal state of Iraq. It is a democratic republic with a parliamentary political system that is based on political pluralism, the principle of separation of powers and the peaceful transfer of power through direct, general and periodic elections that use a secret ballot.”

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, indicated that Barzani’s determination to hold a referendum on the draft constitution leaves the region two choices. Speaking to Al-Monitor, he added, “It is probable that the constitution will obtain a simple majority. In this case, the region would have a constitution that does not enjoy political consensus.”

As for the second choice, Roustay explained that “If the draft constitution does not obtain a majority during the referendum, this will bring us back to square one and the Kurdistan Region parliament would have to form another committee to redraft another constitution for the region.”

The proposed draft constitution of Kurdistan 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.

Out of the 111 seats in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region’s parliament in the 2009 elections, the Movement for Change obtained 25, the Islamic Group obtained four and the Islamic Union obtained six. The three Iraqi Kurdish opposition forces objected strongly to submitting the draft constitution to a popular referendum, following which it would enter into force if it obtains the approval of a the majority.

Abdel Hamid Zebari is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Iraq Pulse. A reporter from Erbil who works in print and radio, he has published in local and international media, including Agence France-Press and Radio Free Iraq (Radio Free Europe).

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