A bitter political spat in the northern Iraqi area of Kurdistan over how the regional president should be elected and what powers the office should have is threatening to add to the region’s instability.
The fight comes as Kurdistan is facing a number of other crises, including trying to maintain a 1,500-kilometer border against Islamic State extremists, a crippling dispute with Baghdad over money, and a severe economic downturn.
U.S. and British representatives have attended meetings aimed at resolving the political dispute, urging political unity in the face of the Islamic State threat.
Political parties say that what is at stake is not only the future of current Kurdistan Regional President Massoud Barzani, but also the shape of the region’s democracy itself.
Barzani has been in office since 2005. His term officially expired August 20 after having been extended for two years.
His Kurdish Democratic Party, or KDP, is insisting that Barzani’s presidency be extended for another two years and that future leaders should be elected by a general vote.
But two main opposition parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran (Change), and two smaller parties, the Kurdistan Islamic League (KIL) and the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU), are insisting that any president should be appointed by parliament.
Shahin Mirkhan, a KDP member in the vice president’s office, said the opposition was not showing itself willing to compromise and that the dispute was reaching a critical point. “It is a disagreement becoming a crisis,” he told VOA.
“We strongly believe in democratic values where people have the central role of electing the president,” Mirkhan said. “They strongly believe the president should be elected by parliament. We say people, they say parliament.”
Mirkhan said Barzani’s party was willing to put the issues to a referendum, but not for at least two years, giving Kurdistan the time to push ISIS back and resolve its economic difficulties and relations with Baghdad.
“These are big concerns which should be addressed, and I feel we are not as focused as we were before because of this (political) dilemma,” he said.
One possible solution would be allowing Barzani to continue as president for two years while strengthening the power of parliament to limit the authority of the presidency, says Sherzad Ameen, education advisor to Kurdistan’s Regional Prime Minister’s office.
“I think it will be possible to reach a compromise with some gain and some loss,” Ameen told VOA. “The other way is very dangerous: it will not be limited to political conflict. It may change its nature to a military conflict or give an opening to outside powers to interfere in our political issues, like Tehran, Ankara, Baghdad.”
Kurdistan’s current political fight has fallen along old lines of rivalry: Barzani and his KDP party generally look to Turkey and the United States; the PUK and its offspring Gorran are seen as being aligned more with Tehran. The two sides fought a bitter three-year civil war in the 1990s.
ISIS, as the Islamic State group is known, has shown itself expert at exploiting political fissures in region.
Saadi Pireh, a Politburo member of the opposition PUK, told VOA that unity was not the issue.
“We remain one region, one government, one parliament, and we will reach an agreement. It is hard, but not impossible,” Pireh said.
“President Barzani can continue for one year, two years. But we have to reform the role of the president,” Pireh said.
He insisted on changes as to how the president is elected, as well as the need to curtail his security powers.
“According to the constitution of Iraq, we are a federal parliamentary system, not a presidential system,” Pireh said.
Barzani is a powerful political figure in Kurdistan. His son Masrour Barzani is the head of security, while his nephew Nechervan Barzani is the prime minister.
Critics say the leadership is corrupt and that too much power is concentrated in Massoud Barzani’s hands.
Supporters of Barzani believe he is the only one strong enough to lead the region at such a crucial time.