Moves to clear the way for Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani to serve a third term have sparked criticism in a region that touts itself as a democratic haven in an unstable country.
Much-delayed elections in the autonomous region in Iraq’s north are due before September 8, and voters are set to cast their ballots in provincial, parliamentary and presidential races.
In the last of those, Barzani and his dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) are looking to bypass what his opponents say are clear legal hurdles to another term in office.
“We are against extending Barzani’s time in office, and we are against him being able to run for a third term,” said Yusuf Mohammed, a senior leader in Goran, the main opposition party in the region.
Barzani’s KDP and the smaller Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), headed by ailing Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, have largely held a duopoly in Kurdish politics and have even run on a joint slate in recent elections.
Together, the two parties hold a majority of seats in Kurdistan’s 111-seat regional parliament.
Barzani, the son of revered Kurdish nationalist leader and KDP founder Mulla Mustafa Barzani, has enjoyed tremendous popularity in the region, winning 69.6 percent of votes in the most recent presidential election in 2009.
Born in 1946 in Mahabad, capital of the short-lived Kurdish republic declared by his father during Iran’s post-war unrest, Barzani joined the fight for an independent Kurdistan as a teenager.
He took over the leadership of the KDP from his father in 1979 and has held the position ever since.
But his efforts to win a third term in office — he was initially appointed by Kurdish MPs in 2005, and re-elected four years later — have not met with universal agreement.
The dispute centres around the rules regulating how long one person can serve as president.
Opponents of Barzani and the KDP — principally Goran, but also the region’s Islamic and Communist parties and some PUK supporters — argue that he has served two full terms, and has completed the maximum allowed time.
“Nominating Barzani for a third term is illegal, he has no right to run,” said Goran Azad, one of the few PUK members of the Kurdish parliament opposed to Barzani running again.
His supporters, however, say that because the first term was not the result of a popular election, he has one more left.
The KDP is currently looking at the legal issues around Barzani standing for another term, party spokesman Jaafar Aiminki said.
KDP foreign relations chief Hayman Hawrami added that the party would take “constitutional and legal means, and deliberate with other political parties in Kurdistan, regarding this subject.”
Made up of three provinces — Arbil, where the eponymous regional capital lies, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk — the region controls most of its internal affairs and has sought to lessen its economic dependency on the central government.
Kurdistan is held up as a paradigm of economic growth and stability in a country still beset by deadly violence and chronic political crises, but critics say its two main parties blur the lines between state office and their own party bureaucracies, fostering nepotism and corruption.
In February, Human Rights Watch accused Kurdish authorities of stifling free speech and detaining journalists, activists and political opponents without charge.
“The nature of authority in the (Kurdistan) region comes close to that of a dictatorship, and does not give any importance to the demands of citizens,” said Salahedden Bahaddin, a former leader of the Kurdistan Islamic Union.
“If he does not step back (from the proposals)… the same fate of the dictatorships in the region awaits him,” Bahaddin said, a reference to Arab Spring uprisings that unseated strongmen in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen.
Some among the region’s independent press have also voiced opposition to the plans.
“Putting Barzani forward for another term is not democratic,” said Ahmed Mira, editor-in-chief of the Levine weekly.
“Nominating him again will be a step back for the region, and make it closed, like a dictatorship.”