Massoud Barzani and Kurdish presidential succession

Since Iraq regained its sovereignty in 2004, it has had four prime ministers : Ayad Allawi, Ibrahim Jaafari, Nouri al-Maliki, and current premier Haider al-Abadi. Over the same period, Iraqi Kurdistan has had one ruler: Massoud Barzani. In 2005, the Iraqi Kurdish parliament, dominated by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), agreed that the presidency should be limited to two terms but they skirted the law in 2013 by unilaterally extending Barzani’s second term by two years. That ends on August 19 and, while the KDP remains the largest party in parliament, it lacks an absolute majority. By law, the speaker of parliament, currently from the opposition Gorran Movement, should become acting president. The minority parties, which Barzani could once co-opt, bribe, or coerce into supporting him, are so far refusing to support outright an extra constitutional extension of his term. As the political crisis unfolds, the independent (and London-based) Kurdistan Tribune as usual has perhaps the best political analysis. Barzani has become accustomed to power and, in the spirit of Middle Eastern dictators of decades past, is simply refusing to step down – law or not. For the Barzani family, the presidency has reportedly been worth billions of dollars, and that is not something they’re willing to give up. Yesterday, Barzani apparently ordered a convoy of military vehicles to drive through the capital Erbil in a show of force, a not too subtle threat of what might happen should Parliament push the issue.
Barzani would rather see Kurdistan descend into chaos than lose power. With the clock ticking down on what should be his final week in power, it’s still worth considering long murky questions that surround transition and Kurdistan’s future when a transition of power eventually does occur:

1) Where does Barzani live? Ever since Barzani returned to Iraqi Kurdistan – against the backdrop of the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein – he has resided in Sar-e Rash, a resort complex which had been appropriated by the Iraqi dictator. Barzani has expanded the palace complex, and made the former resort an insulated seat of power for the exclusive use of his family and closest advisors. In effect, it has become the seat of the presidency, home to reception halls and the formal functioning of office. If Barzani is forced to step down, however, what becomes of Sar-e Rash? Barzani has long treated it like personal property, but what title should or does he have to the property? Should the new president occupy the complex on August 20 and send Barzani, his sons, and his wives back to their home village? The analogy would be if President Obama decided that, on January 20, 2017, he should simply continue living in the White House, his successor be damned.

2) What’s the difference between government, party, and personal property? Barzani makes in official salary more per month than the US president does in a year. In addition, his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) owns often multiple offices in every district and every town (so too does the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan). Barzani, over the nearly quarter-century since he returned to Iraqi Kurdistan, has conflated personal, party, and government property. If Barzani leaves office, how will the Kurdish government separate the finances? How will they retrieve monies that may have been illegally appropriated by Barzani and his aides? Will the KDP vacate offices and properties that do not belong to them? Will Gorran take them over, even on a temporary basis?

3) Will civil society speak up? Kurdish civil society is complicated. Many Kurds genuinely want democracy, but they would be wrong to blame outside powers exclusively for their failure to achieve it. After all, too many Kurds allow themselves to be co-opted by political leaders, parties, and neighboring powers. Too many civil society groups have subordinated themselves to party. Hero Khan, the wife of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, maintains a staple of media and civil society groups and uses them as an arrow in her quiver – as much to target political opponents as to promote health and well-being. And the Barzani Foundation is best known for its private jet, lavish expenses, and its refusal to cooperate with other groups which might share the limelight. In effect, it has become the Kurdish equivalent of the Clinton Foundation. Still, there are elements of civil society that might speak up or at least allow independent voices. Kurdistan still maintains a small, but fiercely vocal independent press. Young journalists have literally put their lives on the line to challenge nepotism, corruption, and abuse-of-power. Too many other journalists, however, are afraid to take risks; it is time they do so. If Barzani believes everyone can be bought or silenced, there will be no change. The universities, too, could step up for change. The American University of Iraq-Sulaimani, for example, could be less shy about upsetting the powers that be, but its leadership and/or advisers include enough ambitious politicians (more than other corollary American universities) that it seeks to avoid controversy and remains deferential to Barzani.

4) Where are the bodies buried? Both Barzani and rival Jalal Talabani grew up under the political mentorship of – at various times – Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, Muhammad Reza Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini, and Leonid Brezhnev. Such models were often lethal. Neither Barzani nor Talabani have been as murderous as their mentors but nor have they been saints. During the 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war, perhaps 3,000 Kurds disappeared, including several hundred prisoners. Kurdish Interior Minister Karim Sinjari has acknowledged none of these are still alive, but neither Barzani nor Talabani (nor, for that matter, former Talabani deputy Noshirwan Mustafa) has openly acknowledged what happened and where the bodies are buried so that families can have resolution. Will a new president—even a temporary one—release files that Barzani has hidden because of image or shame?

5) How to handle transition? Make no mistake, the Kurds have achieved miracles, but at the same time, many of the top party officials have been involved in illegalities, whether abuse-of-power, illegal expropriation, or shady financial dealings. It will be impossible to unravel the entanglements quickly and transitions risk instability. Given that this could theoretically be the first real transition in modern Kurdish history, how will a new president professionalize what essentially is now a party bureaucracy? Will there be consequences or amnesty for past wrong-doings, or will a new government establish some sort of South Africa- or Morocco-style ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ Committee? For example, will the murderers of Sardasht Osman, Soran Mama Hama, and other journalists go free? Will the new government repossess private companies like Korek, acquired by Barzani’s nephew with the assistance of a questionable public loan? Given how Barzani has placed his placed his sons in various security and military agencies, how will a new president unravel his predecessor’s grip? Or will Barzani simply rule from afar?

Realistically, it is doubtful Barzani will abide by the law and step down. He sees himself as indispensable, and he has distributed enough patronage that supporters will fight to achieve in the streets what they might not be able to achieve through the law. Still, Kurdistan has never been so close to a democratic watershed, and if Kurds truly wanted it, they could go out into the streets to take what should be theirs. So, even if Barzani sits petulantly in his palace, it’s worth considering the future given that no dictator can escape his own mortality… and even if he won’t resign, Barzani is rapidly becoming an old man.

Michael Rubin is a former Pentagon official whose major research areas are the Middle East, Turkey, Iran and diplomacy. He is author of “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter, 2014). He is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute AEI. His major research area is the Middle East, with special focus on Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and Kurdish society.