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Kurdistan Islamic Party Institutes Reform

Analysts say party’s efforts to become more democratic will not strengthen support for it.
By Wrya Hama-Tahir
The Kurdistan Islamic Union, KIU, has broken with tradition in Kurdish politics by reducing the party leader’s power and electing new members to senior posts.

The party made the changes in an attempt to modernise and attract voters frustrated with the two dominant parties in Iraqi Kurdistan – the Kurdistan Democratic Party, KDP, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK.

However, analysts say the restructuring is unlikely to increase popular support for the Islamic party – which bases its ideology based on religious principles – or to shift political power in a region dominated by secular politicians.

In early May, the KIU elected 13 new members to its 35-member leadership committee and decentralised power by reassigning many of the leader’s powers to lower-level officials.

“We are asking for power to rotate in the [Kurdish] government and in other political parties, so there must also be a rotation of power within our own party,” explained Abu Bakir Haladni, one of the newly-elected party leaders.

At 38, Haladni is the youngest member of the new leadership committee. He said the changes were part of the party's strategy to attract more members and to enable more people to serve in leading positions.

“Our popularity will grow,” he predicted. “These changes will help build an institutional party where one person won’t hold all the power."

As part of the reform, the party has changed its rules to limit the power of its leader, the secretary-general, who will now need the approval of fellow leaders to spend money, appoint members to government posts and appoint or dismiss regional directors.

Former KIU politburo member Sabriyah Ghafar said it was time for the party to have new leaders and called the reforms a “democratic innovation” in the region.

“We really hope that the changes we made will impact other political parties,” she said.

But independent critics and some party members noted that the KIU re-elected secretary-general Salahadin Bahadin, who has served since the party was founded in 1994.

They also pointed out that the number of female leaders in the party has declined from five to three following the restructuring.

However, Haladni said that this was not a result of discrimination.

“Our sisters didn't nominate themselves,” he said. “We even tried to set a quota, but they refused and said they wanted to gain positions based on merit, not affirmative action.”

While Iraqi Kurdistan is widely praised internationally as being one of the most democratic parts of the Middle East, Kurdish politics has been dominated by the same political figures and parties for decades.

The leading parties, the KDP and PUK, hold most of the power in the Kurdish government, which is the primary employer in the north.

The KDP has not held internal party elections for 15 years, and the PUK has not convened to elect new leaders since 2000.

Both have been criticised for favouring members of leading families. The Barzani family has run the KDP since it was created in 1946, by Mustafa Barzani, the father of Iraqi Kurdistan’s current president Masood Barzani and grandfather of the region’s prime minister Nechirvan Barzani.

The PUK, founded by the current Iraqi president Jalal Talabani back in 1975 as an offshoot of the KDP, has seen many of his family members promoted to high-ranking positions in the party and regional government in recent years.

The KIU was established as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood and is regarded as one of the most moderate Islamic parties in Iraq.

The party, which advocates using Islamic principles to push for Kurdish rights and democratic reform, has tried to position itself as an alternative to the KDP and PUK.

The KIU won nine of the 111 Kurdish assembly seats and two of the 44 ministerial posts in the Kurdish Regional Government in the 2005 election, when it ran independently of the KDP-PUK list and pledged to fight corruption and advocate for reform.

The party also holds five seats in the 275-member national parliament of Iraq, as well as one low-level ministerial post in Baghdad.

Analysts say the KIU is unlikely to make a dent in the Kurdish political system despite its internal reforms.

The secular ideologies of the PUK and KDP are popular among Iraqi Kurds, who are reluctant to support a party based on Islamic principles, said Salar Bassira, professor of political science at the University of Sulaimaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan.

However, he said the KIU could win support by becoming more secular.

“People might not be willing to become Islamists, but people will vote for them if the party changes its ideology and becomes a more open party,” said Bassira.

“People want a decent life and freedom,” he added. “Any party that can provide them with that will gain the votes of the people.”

During the KIU’s internal elections, a proposal to change the party’s name to the Reformist Union of Kurdistan was rejected.

“The name ‘Islam’ is not attractive internationally,” said Yaseen Rasul, a senior KIU leader from the largely rural area of Germyan, southeast of Sulaimaniyah.

“So we said, ‘Look, we can change the name and still continue our work, just like the Justice and Development party in Turkey,” he said, referring to the Turkish ruling party which emerged from the Refah or Welfare Party and tried to leave its Islamic identity behind.

According to Rasul, “The idea was rejected because the fundamentalists are powerful in the party. They said the Kurdish public might not understand the point and we might risk losing our current members.”

The KIU’s restructuring effort it unlikely to prompt change in the PUK or KDP, according to analysts and party leaders.

Sadi Ahmed Pira, a member of the PUK’s leadership, said that it was too early for his party to follow the KIU model.

He said it was the wrong time to bring in new leaders, as the political situation in Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq remained unstable. To do so now would merely weaken the party at a time when the Kurds still have outstanding political demands, such as holding a referendum to decide whether the disputed city of Kirkuk should be incorporated into their region.

Bassira also thought it unlikely that the KIU changes would influence other parties.

“The change will not affect the politics or the political parties in Kurdistan, because the leaders of the other parties are unwilling to make changes that are not in their interest,” he explained.

“But these changes might encourage dissenting voices within other political parties to demand changes in their leaderships.”

Wrya Hama-Tahir is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sulaimaniyah.

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