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Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani

What Favors Dictatorship in Iraq’s Kurdistan Region?

Dr. Showan Khurshid | NRT
Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani
Iraqi Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani
The crises we face today, in the Federal Region of Kurdistan, are not just because of ISIL’s attacks and financial shortages. We could have avoided them had it not been for the troubles at the foundations of our political system – one manifestation of which is the tension arising from the persisting demands that the current president, Mr. Massoud Barzani, stays in power, despite the fact that he served two initial terms, of four years each, and was given a two-year extension. This tension shows that Kurdish leaders or some of them have not adopted democracy as a peaceful means to organize the struggle for power. Obviously, Mr. Barzani’s interests are not limited to ruling just a few more years – had it been so, he might not have even bothered. The real aim is to stay in power as long as he can and then pass it on to his son. Barzani’s eldest son has already been groomed to wield power. As the head of national intelligence services, he has been playing important role in the ongoing undemocratic phase of the struggle for power. As such, it seems that we are in for a project for establishing a dictatorship or at least a dysfunctional democracy that leads us to eventual degeneration. Whether these less desired projects succeed or not are the topics of my discussion below. More precisely, in this part, I will point out those factors that favor building dictatorship. The second part will deal with those factors that make establishing dictatorship more difficult.
1. The Judiciary

Dictatorship can thrive in the absence of a powerful and independent judiciary. This is not to say that there are no brave judges who have defied the ruling elite in order to do justice. However, the fact that some of these judges are punished without much protest from their colleagues and the fact that many officials can escape prosecution even for grave transgressions reflect that the judiciary is not powerful and sufficiently independent.

2. Financial Auditory System

Lack of an effective auditory system allows phenomenal corruption, the proceeds of which are then used in recruiting or buying off dissenting voices and influential figures. Of course, we should expect such a situation when the auditors are bribed or not protected sufficiently.

3. The Weakness of the Parliament

We have to give credit to the current parliamentary leadership and several MPs for enhancing the position of Parliament and enabling it to play a more significant role in the drive for democracy, in comparison with previous terms. However, it is not powerful enough yet. For instance, it has not been able to set up inquiries into transgressions carried out continuously by influential figures in the ruling elite. Nor has it been able to pass all the laws the current situation requires. The limitation on the power of the Parliament is by design. The leaders of the parties, do not deign to take up seats in the Parliament, most likely to avoid being exposed in the public as inapt debaters and speakers, yet they want to have the final say to themselves.

4. Failing to adopt the principle of Neutrality of State

One of the reasons that establishing democracy is so difficult in the Islamic world, in general, is the mixing of religion and state. No doubt, the Islamic mentality is antipathetic toward the liberal freedoms, which are a precondition for democracy and involve freedom of conscience in choosing belief or disbelief, the right to express opinion even if it was against religions, and personal freedom, in regard to marriage and relationship between sexes. The majority of Islamists do not express openly their aversion to democracy. On the contrary, they even argue that Islam brought about the real democracy – despite the fact that in the whole of Islamic history no election has taken place.

So it seems there is a kind of “Islamic democracy,” even though they do not market it under this banner. The main feature of this democracy, ironically, is to impose a major condition that no law contradicting “unchanging principles [or the dogma] of Islam should pass.” This contradicts the essence of democracy, which is that people make the laws they choose; insofar these laws are in accordance with a respect of basic liberal rights.

In the current stable democracies, the state does not adopt any religion. In Muslim countries, the general assumption is that there is no need for such a separation, because, as it is believed, the separation was only necessary in the West, and that is because of the excess of Christianity, and that Islam is free from such shortcomings, naturally. That is why even the majority of supposedly secular political parties accept uncritically that demand of Islamists. So the problem is that people, and among them huge numbers of the educated, as well as politicians do not understand how religion undermines democracy and how that favors establishing a dictatorship.

(1) With such a condition accepted and featured in the constitutions of most Islamic countries, Islamic forces inside and outside legislative bodies can have strong bargaining positions through which they wring concessions, which usually aim at promoting the role of religion in the society and putting additional restrictions on secular intelligentsia. Some of the obvious consequence of this influence is that the state pays thousands of clergy and other employees of mosques. The state establishes religious schools and colleges. Islamic institutions have a free hand in building numerous mosques, set up dozens of religious TV and radio stations, publish books, and periodicals, teach and organize events. This means the whole population is constantly subjected to religious indoctrination. While in the meantime the state also disallows and prosecutes or does nothing in the way of protecting those who are critical of the religion. This is the reason that in many Islamic countries those who are suspected of atheism, blasphemy or secularism are either prosecuted by the state or left exposed to lethal attacks by Islamists.

(2) A part of the ideas directed at the population is concerned with discrediting liberal democracy under the pretext that the West allows atheism and promiscuity. This means that liberal democracy is not on demand across much of the Islamic world and with the absence of liberalism, democracy, no doubt, does not take off – obviously, there has not been a real and stable democracy without association with liberalism.

(3) This situation also engenders extremism. Simply put, with the masses of people exposed to religious teachings, a great many will try to receive his or her information from the original sources and the history of early Islam. But what they will find is encouragement of jihad, the need to establish an Islamic state with Sharia as the basis for its constitution.

As such, an antidemocratic mentality, the hallmark of extremists, will come automatically to people influenced this way. Extremists who follow the Western model of politics and lifestyle are counted as aggressors against Islam. With such ideas, it will be just a matter of time before someone or some groups decide that time for talk is up and action is needed and the target will be the secular individuals and later on, governmental institutions.

Yet, when this happens the ruling elites of the Islamic world are, shockingly, surprised that they have been dragged into bloody confrontation with Islamic forces, despite their feeling that they have done everything right in respecting and accommodating Islam – of course, unable to understand it is exactly this excessive accommodating of Islam that engenders extremism and terrorism in the first place.

This is not a wholly unwelcomed prospect for the ruling elite of the Islamic world though, because this situation gives them a unique opportunity to pose as if they are fighting extremism for which they demand or justify wielding greater power. The initial inference here is that mixing religion has given the ruling elite opportunity to assume and ask for greater power and as such has been facilitating for dictatorship.

(4) As importantly, Islamic indoctrination has affected the political and cultural education. People in the Islamic world do not read to educate themselves in politics, including their rights, the proper organization of states, the proper function of democracy, nor do they care about the basic sciences that underpin marvelous advances in technology and medicine. Obviously, the populations of the Islamic world are not in fertile ground for democracy. Such a population would very likely vote Islamist in an election as has happened many times over.

5. The lack of clear criteria for assessing the performance of the authority

Witnessing an election campaign in stable Western liberal democracies, one can note that the ideas used to win over voters revolve around certain basic themes: respect for individual rights; provision of quality social services, like municipal services, health, education; ensuring a prospering economy; maintaining or improving security at home and abroad. Judging the achievement of the KRG on the bases of these criteria will not yield any impressive scores. However, majority of the population can easily be taken in by nationalist rhetoric. The ruling elite takes good advantage of this. Thus in the eye of many, the president is a hero, just because he challenges the central authorities.

Recently, though, the image of the relentless hero of Kurdish nationalism has been undermined by the failure of forces led by officers loyal to him to defend Shingal and areas around Mosul, leaving hundreds of thousands of people to the barbarism of ISIL, and failing again to prosecute those officers responsible for the debacle.

The point here is that playing on nationalist sentiments usually allows a wide margin for rulers to escape the proper assessments that are necessary for establishing liberal democracy.

In the following article, I will write about the factors that make establishing dictatorship difficult in the Federal Region of Kurdistan.

6. The Strange Case of Political Party Culture of Iraqi-Kurdistan

Perhaps, the culture of political parties in Kurdistan is as serious threat to democracy as “Islamic democracy” itself. Here the party is not just an electioneering machine aimed at finding the winning ideas and disseminating them among people to win them over, as it is the case in stable democracies. Most Kurdish parties are also power and business enterprises. The two main political parties, the KDP and PUK, for instance – this may also apply to other parties though to lesser extent – own numerous business, banks, land, and properties. Moreover, these parties command their own militia as well as secret services – in fact, Kurdistan does not have its own army, the loyalties of various units of army are first and foremost are for the leadership of political parties, and there is a real fear that in the event of disagreement among the various leaderships, the Kurdish army will splinter with various units fighting each other. There are also hundreds, if not thousands of officials, of these parties who use the parties’ clout, including their armies and secret services to appropriate land and properties and procure business deals for themselves.

Accordingly, one should expect that the high-ranking officials must be recruiting the lower ranking ones through various kinds of deals. Still, these parties pay the salaries of thousands of employees who work within various professions, including teaching and administration. This means that the party, particularly KDP, acts as a state within state or a group within a larger one. The PUK, since the ailment of its leader, has been suffering some kind of disintegration and factionalizing. In that sense, the interests of the party and its leadership come ahead of the interests of the people of Kurdistan. This is an obvious reason why the KDP is so adamant on reinstalling Masoud Barzani even though doing so is clearly against the law on which KDP and Barzani himself agreed, and that extending his presidency will end the prospect of democracy perhaps for good.

Another negative effect of this party culture is demonstrated in the factionalizing of the state. Now, each of the major five parties – who all joined the government – has their feuding fiefdoms within the state administrations and departments. Sometimes, one can feel that even the prime minister conspires against one of his ministries, in order to undermine the popularity of the party holding the ministry. In effect, what we see in Kurdistan is a repetition of what has happened and is happening in Iraq, where each participating party in the government has its own fiefdom and the state is always kept underpowered and ineffective. This means that, eventually, Kurdistan might become like Iraq where even the posts are sold and the whole state is left vulnerable to the conquest of ISIL. This might mean that this factor will not facilitate dictatorship, but lead to having a failed state. Yet, this dysfunctionality of the state can also generate popular feeling that some kind of dictatorship is necessary to escape the unbearable situation.