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IRAQ: Lame-Duck Lawmakers Push Through Kurdistan’s New Charter

Mohammed A. Salih

WASHINGTON, Jun 26 2009 (IPS) - A draft constitution passed by the parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan has drawn divided reactions, with some questioning the very legitimacy of a lame-duck parliament to pass the single most important legal document of the Kurdish region and others touting it as a positive step forward.

The Kurdish parliament has 111 members. But only 97 took part in the vote Wednesday, in which 96 lawmakers voted in favour of the draft constitution.

The parliament’s four-year mandate officially ended on Jun. 4. Despite widespread criticism, lawmakers had renewed their term for one more month based on a provision in the legislature’s statute that allows the extension.

Citing prevalent conventions in democratic systems, critics question the wisdom and intention behind a hasty move by a lame-duck parliament to vote on the charter after only two sessions of debate. Some parliament members had complained that the draft text was handed to them only 24 hours before the voting session.

The majority of parliament members had earlier decided in favour of the extension, citing examples of countries such as Sudan and civil-war-era Lebanon that had extended the function of their parliaments.

But that argument has not resonated with many in Kurdistan, including some parliament members who question the seriousness of Kurdish leaders’ democracy rhetoric while following models like Sudan and Lebanon of 1970s and 1980s when it was plagued by bloody internal war.

“Parliament is like a pact between people and lawmakers. That pact came to an end earlier this month,” Osman Banimarani, a Kurdish parliamentarian told IPS, in a phone interview from Irbil, Iraq.

Banimarani was one of seven lawmakers who boycotted the voting session. “There has been no natural disaster, civil war or foreign aggression in Kurdistan. So why not wait for the new parliament to take charge and decide on the constitution?” he said.

Elections are scheduled for Jul. 25 to elect a new parliament and president for the region. The Kurdish government hopes to hold a referendum on the draft constitution on the same date. It will not take effect until approved by a simple majority of voters.

The move to hastily pass the draft constitution was masterminded by the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The KDP is led by Massoud Barzani who is the president of Kurdistan region, while Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, heads the PUK.

Massoud Barzani is one of the five candidates running for the office of the president of the autonomous Kurdish region in July. He is thought to be the likely winner of the upcoming elections as well, thanks to the alliance that he has forged with his long-time rival Jalal Talabani.

Iraqi Kurdistan includes the three northern provinces of Irbil, Sulaimaniya and Dohuk. An autonomous region within Iraq, it has its own constitution, government, parliament and armed forces.

A major source of concern in the current draft is the powers invested in the president. While Iraq’s national constitution gives the president largely ceremonial roles, the Kurdish one makes the president of the autonomous region the most powerful individual in effect.

Although the Iraqi constitution authorises the national parliament in Baghdad to impeach both the president and prime minister of the country, the Kurdish parliament has no such powers.

The legislature in Kurdistan can only indict the president for elastic charges such as “high treason” and “breach of the constitution”. It is left it to Kurdistan’s Constitutional Court to decide whether or not to oust the president. Members of that court are to be nominated by the president and approved by the parliament.

But in a part of world that has little experience with an independent judiciary, some believe that means the president cannot be relieved in practice until his term comes to an end.

“Our region’s past experience carries serious worries that an overly powerful executive branch will not be in favour of democracy,” Bilal Wahab, an Iraqi Kurdish political and governance analyst based in Washington, told IPS.

The draft of the Kurdish constitution states the president of the region will be elected through popular vote while on the national level both president and prime minister will be elected by parliament members.

Many Kurds argue that runs contrary to the very nature of the political system in Iraq. The national constitution, for which the overwhelming majority of Kurds voted in 2005, clearly stipulates that Iraq has a parliamentary system and that no regional constitution within the country should contradict that.

“The draft constitution creates a hybrid system of presidential and parliamentary systems which creates an executive branch that is strong and that claims popular legitimacy equal to parliament,” Wahab said.

However, he believes that the draft constitution has managed to create a delicate system of checks and balances that if followed “hold the promise of a constitutional democracy” for Kurdistan.

“There are a lot of beautifully written laws that remain ink on paper and are not implemented on the ground,” he cautioned.

Kurdish officials promise the supremacy of the constitution once it takes effect. Stressing the progressive aspects of the charter, Adnan Mufti, Speaker of the Kurdish Parliament, had said it provides broader rights for ethnic and religious minorities in Kurdistan than the national constitution does.

The draft constitution allows cultural and political rights for minorities, including education in their mother tongue. It even allows ethnic and religious minorities to establish autonomous administrative areas within the boundaries of the Kurdistan region.

Unlike the Iraqi constitution, the Kurdish charter does not declare Islam the official religion of the state, a provision that has been applauded by secularists in the autonomous region. It also prohibits all forms of discrimination based on gender, religion, ethnicity and ideology, among others.

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