May 19, 2014

Is Democracy the ‘Only Game’ in Iraqi Kurdistan

More than four months have passed since the regional legislative elections in the Kurdistan Region, but the main winners have failed to form a new cabinet. This, despite news that the formation of the cabinet is in sight. It has all but been confirmed that the three main parties – the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Change Movement (Gorran) – will participate in the new government. This could be an opportunity for the Kurdistan Region to consolidate democracy and lead the Kurdish model into a new phase.
Unlike the rest of the Middle East, the Kurdistan Region has a good chance of becoming a consolidated democracy. But this depends on the political leaders to direct the region on the right path during this transitional period. Last year, we had a relatively fair and free election with proportional representation, considered the most democratic election system. Democratic consolidation was meant to describe the challenge of securing new democracies, of extending their life expectancy beyond the short term and of making them immune to the threat of authoritarian regression.
For political scientist Adam Przeworski, democracy is consolidated when it “becomes the only game in town, when no one can imagine acting outside the democratic institutions, when all the losers want to do is to try again within the same institutions under which they have just lost.” Of course, democracy is not yet “the only game in town” in Kurdistan. There are still authoritarian enclaves inherited from decades of authoritarian rule by the central Iraqi government.
Many positive elements have already emerged from the Kurdish experiment, such as a strong new opposition in 2009, a colorful range of popular political parties, the secular nature of the major parties and an emerging civil society and free press.
Still, the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) has a long way to go before it can be labeled a democracy. The new Kurdish assembly, the Kurdistan presidency and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) need to work together in order to push the Kurdish experiment toward a full democracy. There are certain steps which the next parliament is required to take in order to do this, starting with the constitution.
As expected, the draft constitution will return to parliament. The priority, if any changes are made, must be a clear separation of powers: legislative, executive and judicial. The legislative power in the Kurdistan Region is still weak for many reasons, the most important being that the political parties are still not fully committed to the democratic game and tackle crucial issues outside of parliament. Additionally, the vast majority of parliamentary members are new and inexperienced. (There is a similar problem in the new democracies of Eastern Europe, and the Kurdistan Region should learn from their experience).
The executive bodies suffer from corruption and a political division between Erbil and Sulaimani that was inherited from the civil war of 1996. The judiciary, although seeing some improvement, is still not independent and its role has been marginalized. But a strong and fair judiciary is one of the foremost elements of a functioning democracy. The Kurdish judiciary should become an independent body from the legislative and executive bodies.
The constitution should also strengthen the secular elements of the state. Democracy cannot function properly without a secular system in place. Therefore, the role of religion in public institutions should be lessened. The Kurdish constitution in its current shape makes the system more of a theocracy than a democracy: Article 6 clearly states that the government should not “enact a law inconsistent with the provisions of the fundamentals of Islam.” In the same article, it also states that the government should not “enact a law inconsistent with democracy principals.” This article contradicts itself, since there are Islamic laws that are undemocratic, just as there are democratic laws that are un-Islamic.
Although an article in the Iraqi constitution states that no regional constitution should violate the Iraqi constitution, secular political parties are a vast majority in the Kurdistan Region. They could go ahead and secularize the Kurdish constitution using legal loopholes in the central Iraqi document. The Iraqi constitution clearly states that no law should violate the principles of democracy and human rights, and Kurdish legislators could argue that secularization is necessary for a strong democracy and universal human rights.
Another important step toward consolidating democracy is the decentralization of state powers. Provincial authorities and local economies should have enough autonomy to function properly.
The KRG should also adopt a clearer economic vision. There is a direct relationship between democracy and economic performance. The government’s reliance on oil rents has made the KRG a “renter state.” More than 90 per cent of the KRG’s revenues come from oil rents. Rentier states are more likely to become authoritarian because the government controls the economy. Here, the government must have a vision and a timeline toward reducing reliance on oil revenues by diversifying the economy. The region can correct the distortions of the economy because it has enormous alternative resources such as agriculture, tourism and industry. The KRG should also adopt a clear tax policy in order to strength democracy.
Another important component of democratic consolidation is civil society. In the IKR, civil society is still weak and occasionally partisan. But it is steadily growing stronger and more independent, thanks to international aid. Yet, civil society needs time to grow even stronger.
Despite the fact that the Kurdistan Region is still a part of Iraq — and the region faces growing challenges — internal reforms remain the most crucial element in the process of building the Kurdistan Region. Kurdistan should adopt a more secular constitution. The Kurdish assembly should seek further decentralization of power. And the KRG should develop alternative sectors to natural resources and gradually diversify the economy, making it more autonomous.
The coming four years are critical for the region, because it will become clear which road the region will take, catching up to developed countries or staying loyal to its geography. 

This article has first appeared on Rudaw English:

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