Kurdish Leaders Defiant Over Constitution Vote

Defying fierce opposition from fellow Kurds and Arabs, Iraqi Kurdistan’s leaders forge ahead with referendum plans.

Kurdish Leaders Defiant Over Constitution Vote

Defying fierce opposition from fellow Kurds and Arabs, Iraqi Kurdistan’s leaders forge ahead with referendum plans.

Wednesday, 7 October, 2009
Kurdish officials are planning a January referendum on a controversial draft constitution for the region, despite protests that it flouts Iraqi law, could heighten tensions with Baghdad and even lead to a dictatorship.



The proposed constitution, which was overwhelmingly approved by Iraqi Kurdistan’s parliament in June, gives sweeping powers to the presidency and declares disputed territories – including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk – part of the Kurdish region.



Before it can be placed on the statute book, the planned basic law needs to be ratified in a referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan.



The draft document has further strained relations with Arab Iraqis and has been a bone of contention between the Kurdish authorities and the opposition who have challenged its legality, warning it could create a dictatorship in the northern region.



Scores of parliamentarians in Baghdad are also fiercely opposed to the proposed constitution, arguing that it not only extends Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders but also usurps the central government’s authority – a particularly sensitive issue for some Iraqis who are wary of Kurdistan’s autonomy.



Despite the criticisms, proponents of the draft are standing behind the document and want it put to a referendum during the Iraqi parliamentary elections in mid-January.



The planned basic law was put together by members of parliament loyal to the region’s two ruling parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, which together hold 59 seats in the 111-member parliament.



It was overwhelmingly approved on the eve of elections to Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional parliament in July, but is now being challenged by opposition group the Change list.



Leaders of the latter have threatened to dispute the proposed constitution’s legality in court on the grounds that legislators pushed through the document after parliament’s term had expired. The Kurdish parliament extended its term to approve the constitution.



“We do not accept the constitution,” said Zana Rauf, a Change list deputy. “It should not be put to a referendum. We will not recognise it because the parliament that approved it was illegitimate.”



Change is demanding that the constitution be debated in the current parliament, arguing that the document is illegal and therefore should not go before the public in a referendum.



The PUK and KDP maintain that the draft basic law cannot be amended because it has already been approved by parliament. They say it should be put to a referendum and then amended, if necessary.



But holding just 25 seats in parliament, Change would be unlikely to garner the two-thirds of votes that are required to pass amendments, even with support from smaller opposition parties.



Kamal Sayid Qadir, a critic of the government and a constitutional law expert, said the planned constitution was drafted “in the interest of the two ruling parties. Every effort has been made to ensure that amending [the document] is so difficult that it is nearly impossible”.



Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani publicly stated in July that he would support amending parts related to the presidency in order to get the document onto the statute book, but has not commented on the issue since.



Change, which is keen to ease growing tensions between the Kurdish Regional Government, KRG, and Baghdad, want the proposed document amended to give legislators more power.



In particular, they want the removal of articles which give the president the power to dissolve parliament, remove ministers and ratify or reject parliamentary decisions.



Some politicians in Baghdad consider parts of the planned constitution a direct challenge to the central government’s authority – fifty legislators in the central assembly signed a petition opposing the Kurdish basic law in June.



Baghdad politicians are particularly nervous about articles in the draft declaring that disputed territories in the provinces of Nineveh, Diyala and Kirkuk will be governed by either the KRG or the central government following a referendum on the issue.

Kurdish leaders have criticised Baghdad for dragging its heels over the poll.



The United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in August urged the KRG and the region’s parliament to reconsider the constitution’s provisions on the disputed territories, warning they “could have the potential to aggravate tensions and affect ongoing discussions on the disputed boundaries”.



A referendum on the proposed constitution scheduled for late July was cancelled a few days after United Sates vice-president Joe Biden, whom many Kurds consider an ally, met Barzani. In an interview on the US news channel ABC, Biden said Iraqi officials had requested that he tell Kurdish leaders that “passing a constitution through their parliament in Kurdistan was not helpful to the process that was under way".



While the referendum is still up in the air, it remains a critical issue in Iraqi Kurdistan. The authorities here are keen to ensure that local Kurds are familiar with draft basic law’s provisions before a vote takes place, Last month, it ordered that more than 800,000 copies be distributed to families picking up their food rations.



“We don’t want [critics] to say, ‘They ratified the constitution behind closed doors.’ So we will make the constitution available to every citizen,” parliament secretary Farsat Ahmed said.



The PUK and KDP note that the planned document was supported by an overwhelming majority in parliament, including smaller parties.



The Kurdistan Islamic Union, KIU, backed the draft after agreement on declaring Islam as a primary source of the legislation. But some members of KIU, a moderate Islamist party, are now expressing reservations about the power afforded the Iraqi Kurdistan president.



“When the constitution was approved, it was not thoroughly examined,” said KIU parliamentarian Samir Salim. “It was done hastily - that much is clear.”



Shorish Khalid is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah.
Iraqi Kurdistan
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