Futuristic Readings No.2 -2020
The Intractable Issues of the Kurdistan Region and the Future for its reform
– Futuristic Readings No.2
– Researchers: Dr. Yousif Goran, Dr. Omed Rafiq Fatah, Dr. Abid Khalid Rasul,
Dr. Hardi Mahdi Mika.
– Centre for Future Studies – Sulaimani – Iraqi Kurdistan Region
– March 2020
Section One: Public Health Security in the KRI and the ongoing COVID-19 Crisis
Section Two: The Problem of Internal Democracy of KRI’s Political Parties; The Congresses of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan as a Case Study.
Section Three: The Islamic Union of Kurdistan After Eight Congresses; The Stage of Uncertainty.
The world, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (‘KRI’) and its forces have in recent months come face to face with significant threats from multiple directions. Globally, COVID-19 presents an unprecedented challenge, while the question of politics and the handover of power within political parties (through internal party congresses) offers a unique hurdle to KRI going forward. Each issue threatens to have a lasting impact on the future of KRI and the conduct of its political forces. Furthermore, both relate directly to public health security and the future of politics within KRI. This issue of Future Perspectives discusses and analyses these subjects and presents our researchers’ perspectives on scenarios for the region going forward.
Public Health Security in the KRI and the ongoing COVID-19 Crisis
Experts have varying opinions on the term ‘health security’; for some, it is a “political term” as it forms a branch of national security. Justifying this position is the fact that ‘national security’ is a reference to the state’s ability to confront all manner of internal and external threats. Others believe ‘human security’ plays a fundamental role in achieving human rights as it promises to prioritize the protection of human life against any manner of internal or external threats and provide for any requirements in this regard.
Regardless of the theoretical debate, today the term ‘health security’ is one of the markers against which states are measured in their respective abilities to protect human life and provide environments in which humans can live out healthy lives. As such, it also becomes a measure of the extent to which states fail in this regard, for example, failing to protect their populations against long-term illness, pollution and natural disasters. The question here is: what is the state public health security in KRI? Does KRI have the ability to provide health security for its public? These questions are of particular importance at present as the global spread of COVID-19 is now unquestionably threatening public health security in the region.
– The State of Public Health Security in KRI:
To be sure of the state of public health security in KRI, we must first assess whether the region has a public health system that is up to the task of providing health security for its population? In this respect, the term ‘public health system’ covers the policies, tools, finances resources, human resources that a state utilizes to provide health security for its population, such as;
- Drawing up of the necessary health legislation;
- Providing the financial resources required to support the implementation of its health policies;
- Providing medicine and medical equipment at the required level during both routine and emergency periods;
- Ensuring quality assurance in delivery, managing both public and private health resources so that they deliver to international standards;
- Having a modern information-sharing system that can serve all manner of processes within the health sector.
Based on the above, we assess the health system of KRI is not in a satisfactory state and cannot provide adequately for public health security in the region. By comparing the defined “threats to public health security” in KRI and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (‘KRG’) “ability to confront” them, the gaps in KRI’s ability to provide for public health security are apparent.
– Risks to Public Health Security in KRI:
By taking into account the international standards set out by the World Health Organization (‘WHO’) in regards to a standard national health system in a developed country we can layout the most evident public health and environmental risks to KRI:
- Human resources: By taking KRI’s Sulaimani province as an example, that available data shows that it requires approximately 25,000 doctors, nurses and trained experts to staff province’s health sector. At the moment Sulaimani’s health sector is staffed by roughly 13,000 staff, the majority of which do not have the necessary skills that can advantage the province when significant health threats emerge;
- Medical infrastructure: KRI’s medical infrastructure is lacking and will likely struggle to protect public health during a national health crisis, such as a pandemic;
- Medical oversight: medical oversight in KRI remains weak due to the lack of quality assurance practiced by both public and private sector health agencies. The region is subject to imports of low-quality and counterfeit medication by groups and mafias who then sell their products within KRI’s health system. These groups are often criticized locally for their willingness to practice business in KRI’s health sector by gambling with the health and lives of KRI residents. In addition, there are significant questions around environmental pollution in the region and the purity of drinking water.
- Trust: The first three points above have contributed to a deficit in public trust of KRI’s public and private health sectors. In the region, a continued and contributory problem to KRG’s ability to provide adequate health security is the public’s lack of trust in the health system. This lack of confidence has, to an extent, led residents to readily forgo public health advice and ignore individual public health responsibilities.
- KRI does not have a national body that can lead research into biological threats and disease prevention, both of which present ongoing risks to governments worldwide. The nature of these threats requires comprehensive government plans to be in place for continued monitoring and, should the need arise, to confront an outbreak of disease. Further complicating this problem in KRI is the fact that medical, chemical and biological research centers already present in the region lack the required state attention and financial support to fill this void for the KRG. Such centers are vital for public health security and should ideally be established and funded by the state. Furthermore, it should be the findings of these centers that also guide the private health sector. However, KRG which until 2013 made its annual regional budget public, provided no financial resources to these centers.
- Several other threats face KRI’s public health sector and its environment, such as the lack of government and public health awareness, mixing of the public and private health sectors and the absence of family doctor network in the regions health system among other things.
– KRI’s Ability to Confront Threats to its Public Health Security:
The threats facing public health security in KRI are more significant that the regions ability to confront them as the region relies on the skills of a handful of medical professionals that are limited in the region. Furthermore, an essential element of the regions ability to confront risks to public health security is its link to WHO. Other positive aspects of public health security in the region are its relatively clean atmosphere, which KRI owes to its industrial underdevelopment.
– The Future of Public Health Security in KRI and the Threat Posed by the International COVID-19 Outbreak:
As KRI has a weak public health system compared to the standards laid out by WHO, there are two potential scenarios for the future of the region’s public health security;
- Faced with a potential COVID-19 outbreak, KRG’s Ministry of Health made the early assessment that the region would fare better working to prevent the spread of the virus than attempting to confront it. As such it was able to mount an early self-preservation response to COVID-19. KRG’s rapid response along with the working hypothesis that the virus could weaken during the hotter summer months allows for the assessment that KRG will provide satisfactory levels of public health security for its citizens and residents, albeit with the help of the changing seasons;
- The health infrastructure in KRI is mostly lacking, and relations between the region and other countries with high COVID-19 infection rates (such as Iran) is not at a satisfactory level. Therefore, we also assess that the virus will continue to remain a significant threat to public health security in the region as KRI’s public health system is not up to the task of providing public health security in the face of a significant COVID-19 outbreak.
The Problem of Internal Democracy of KRI’s Political Parties;
The Congresses of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan as a Case Study:
-The Fourth Congress of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (‘PUK’)
Political party congresses are fundamental and necessary political mechanisms inherited by political parties to renew through the provision of democratic mandates for the leaderships, policies and internal structures. However, in eastern political culture and in particular the Middle East, the political parties rarely stick to the timeframes, democratic procedures or transparency that congresses require. This fact has been proved with no difference for political parties in KRI, among them the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (‘PUK’). It is this culture that led the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan to hold only four political party congresses in its 45-year history, in which most of the time, its delays let to discomfort and anger.
– General Determinants of the Fourth Congress of PUK:
- External determinants: It is quite well known that constitutions, rules and regulations govern the manner of political party life in most democratic systems. The 2017 Iraqi law regulating political party activity forced all political parties in the country to abide by their state’s internal rules and regulations until they are amended or changed through a new political party congress. Furthermore, the law lays out punishments if political parties fail to comply with the law’s provisions. The law prevents high-ranking military personnel from running for political party roles. Since the law’s accession, political parties across Iraq have mostly complied with its provisions. The decision by PUK’s leadership to hold their congress in December 2019 was determined, to some extent, by passing of this law in Iraq.
- Internal determinants: The internal rules of PUK, as it was set out in the party’s third congress in 2010, mandates the party to hold a party congress every three years. However, this rule allows the party for a single delay for up to six months if required and for only one time. According to the regulations, any deviation from this timeframe would leave the political party leadership without a mandate to lead the party. Therefore, based on the party’s own rules, PUK was required to hold its congress in 2014. While it is now evident that the rules did not prevent the leadership of the party from delaying the congress, the rules now act as a pressure card in the hands of any party member that seeks a new congress, as well as the Iraqi Independent Higher Electoral Commission.
Another motivating factor for holding the party’s fourth congress was the infighting between the different wings of the party, which became more frequent when the former General-Secretary of the party, the late Jalal Talabani, fell critically ill. His exit from the Kurdish political scene led to a power vacuum within the party’s leadership. The harm that this void caused the party was evident in the results of the 2013 KRI parliamentary elections, which saw PUK lose parliamentary seats to its local rival the Goran Movement (Change Movement), relegating PUK to the third-largest parliamentary party in KRI. Analysts attributed the party’s poor performance to the internal rivalries of a significant portion of its leaders. The infighting meant the party was caught unprepared for the election and, as a result, mounted a weak election campaign for 2013 vote. PUK’s poor showing in the election was a contributing factor to the party’s delay in holding its mandated 2014 congress, as the leaders feared for their positions within the party in light of the vote.
Jalal Talabani’s departure from political life, the party’s leadership void that his exit created, the infighting between members of the PUK’s upper strata, the party’s poor showing at the elections, the party’s retrenchment from power in KRI and the party leaderships’ loss of its mandate in line with party regulations all contributed to grow the dissatisfaction in the party. Ultimately, the delay of the party’s congress allowed for an increase in the influence of a new younger reform-minded generation within PUK that demanded a change in the party’s leadership. It was the influence of this new group that ultimately determined the outcome of PUK’s fourth conference.
– PUK Projects for Congress:
Before the fourth PUK congress, the party drew up several projects that with the assistance of several high-profile individuals and they were discussed and presented to the party at the congress. PUK also took significant steps to open a discussion at the congress on a comprehensive new project for the party. However, either of these projects to be adopted by congress, they had to observe and resolve three critical dilemmas within PUK. These were, the issue of a new political structure for PUK, the status of the party’s established leaders in any future party structure and the party leadership going forward.
PUK addressed the first question of the new political party structure of PUK through an approach that saw the party adopt an internal party parliamentary system, one that would have the authority to appoint executive power within the party. This idea was dated back to before the third PUK congress in 2010. During the third congress, the plan was put to the vote but failed to achieve the required votes to pass. Instead, congress amended the project so that it espoused the creation of an internal party council. However, the idea resurfaced during the fourth PUK conference where it was passed by the congress, albeit with significant alterations. The new system meant that congress only had the power to elect members of the new Party Leadership Council (parliament). Then, the council, together with the party politburo would elect the party leader(s). Under the new rules, the Party Leadership Council also maintained the right to replace members of the politburo and the party leader. Congress passed the project with a majority during the fourth party congress with further amendments reserved for the PUK’s newly elected Party Leadership Council.
The second issue of the status of the party’s established leaders in the party’s structure was one of the central areas of disagreement in the party. Before the fourth congress, an idea was circulating within PUK around establishing a “Founder’s Council”, “Council of the Experts” or “Higher Council”. This idea was not new as it was around since 2013-2014 when it became a contentious issue within PUK. The disagreements were not about the idea of such a body being allowed to become established, but the powers that the agency would have. The plan was that the fourth congress would only create the body and appoint its leader; however, during the congress, all individuals within the new upper body were also subsequently elected. The issue of the body’s powers was passionately debated in congress but was ultimately left unresolved. Congress decided to leave the problem to be resolved at a later date by a joint committee comprised of members of the Party Leadership Council and the party’s new leader(s). To date, the powers of this top bureau remain unresolved.
The third perhaps most important and most sensitive issue is that of the party leadership going forward. During the tenure of Jalal Talabani, this issue was mostly non-existent (only arising once as a major issue when PUK’s reform wing established and demanded leadership reform). However, when Jalal Talabani fell critically ill and passed away due to stoke in 2017, the debate resurfaced. Observers argue that one of the reasons this issue became such a sticking point within the party was due to Jalal Talabani having in place no succession plans in the event of his death neither within his family nor in his party. Hence, when Jalal Talabani exited the political scene, there were no plans in place to quickly resolve PUK’s leadership void.
The founding leaders of PUK (those who were previously senior members of the Peshmerga) each had favorites that they wished to succeed Jalal Talabani. However, the party’s politburo failed to agree on one individual as the bitter infighting became mixed with the question of the party’s leadership. Members of the politburo became so entrenched in their positions that only a party congress could break the deadlock over the party leadership. Furthermore, each side of the debate wanted to ensure their influence over the ultimate decision on the selection of the future party leader before congress, thereby leading to further complications and delays when it came to organizing the fourth congress.
Before PUK held its fourth congress, several ideas were circulating within PUK to resolve the issue of the party leadership. These ideas included having a “leadership group” or “co-party leaders”. However, the will to have a single party leader remained the strongest will of PUK’s members. Even during the congress, some worked hard actively and indirectly to have Barham Salih (the Iraqi President) elected as the new sole-party leader. To achieve this, all the wings of the party decided against supporting rivals for Barham Salih or even themselves running for the post of being the leader of the party. This was mainly to protect Barham Salih’s reputation within the party and maximize his vote share at the congress. The move would have left him mostly unchallenged for the leadership. However, these plans changed radically in the run-up to PUK’s fourth congress.
The results of the internal PUK elections for PUK committees, councils and offices that preceded the congress showed that Talabani’s wing of the party was polling strongest. This pattern continued into congress, where the side, as predicted, won the most votes within congress. The representatives of Talabani’s wing, who came in first and second place in congress, believed that it’s their democratic right to have a role in drawing up PUK party policy going forward and each demanded that they receive the post of the deputy leader of the party. After much debate with Barham Salih, the candidate for being the leader of PUK, on the question of having two deputy party leaders, no agreement was reached. Without a resolution, the winning sides raised the issue of Barham Salih’s suitability for the party’s leader. They argued that given his role as Iraqi President, Barham Salih would be busy and unable to lead the party activity for the foreseeable future, especially in the absence of an active deputy leader.
These questions around his suitability led Barham Salih to swiftly withdraw his candidacy for being the party’s leader. With no other agreed-upon candidate to replace him, the party leadership debated the idea of having a “co-leadership” of PUK. Hence, the party agreed that a realistic and democratic solution to PUK’s leadership dilemma was to elect Bafil Talabani and Lahur Sheikh Jangi, the first and second place winners at PUK’s fourth congress, as joint-party leaders. Subsequently, PUK’s fourth congress elected both men as joint-party leaders without any competition from rivals.
– The Future Structure of PUK:
While it is still early to draw any conclusions on the current structure of PUK and its new leadership style or its impact on the future of the party, we can make the following observations:
- Finding a congressional mechanism to resolve PUK’s ongoing problems, following seven years of crisis, rivalry and a vacuum of leadership, can be deemed as a positive outcome for the party if it can now reduce episodes of infighting within the party. The success of PUK is now dependent on the success of the dual-leadership model, a model which requires energy, respite and political and administrative experience.
- A younger generation is now leading PUK, and distanced from the party are the senior founding members. On face value, this new set-up is positive for PUK’s attempt to renew; however, the new leadership has yet to unveil its program and vision for the party going forward. If these new leaders fail to bring a new concept and plan to PUK then the parties success going forward will be open to question;
- The issues around the leadership and political vision of the party, mixing of business with politics in PUK, the idleness of party institutions, the neglect of different types of PUK cadres and the managing of relations with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (‘KDP’), the Goran Movement, the Islamist parties, the Kurdistan Workers Party and Baghdad are all fundamental and require the new party leadership to handle them with fresh breath;
- The process of making decision in PUK has become more difficult due to a significant number of members (which is 124 members) in the new Party Leadership Council, especially as many of them lack political experience. Hence, in practice, the executive institution, PUK politburo, whose members are far less numerous and more experienced, is expected to be more active in making the decision. As a result, the process of oversight by the Party Leadership Council may become difficult.
- To maintain the bridge between the PUK’s senior and experienced members and the new generation of leaders, the party requires a new suitable mechanism to connect the new leadership with PUK’s higher council and other senior members of the party who hold no official position in the party. This connection is vital as the two conditions for the success of political parties, continuation of values and renewal, cannot be sourced from one PUK generation alone.
Section Three: The Islamic Union of Kurdistan After Eight Congresses;
The Stage of Uncertainty:
During the last few years, numerous pressing and deep-rooted internal party questions have confronted the Islamic Union of Kurdistan (‘IUK’). During this period, the party continued with its political and religious movement, albeit is a state of political coma. IUK’s presence on the Kurdish political stage has lasted more than 25 years; however, today, the party faces uncertainty and the risk of collapse. The movement is trapped in its ideological dualism as it cannot decide between religion or its call, the earth or the hereafter, nationalism or the Islamic Ummah and government or opposition. The latest blow to IUK’s internal democratic model, which is at risk with the old guard return to the movement’s leadership and the ever-present threat that the leader will move IUK towards a dynastic model.
On the 28th and 29th December 2019, with 900 of its movement’s members present (22.5 percent female) IUK held its eighth party congress in KRI’s capital, Erbil. During the congress, eight strategic and foundational points passed. Within IUK three administrative agencies are responsible for administering and directing the political policies of the movements; the Secretary-General, the Higher Group of Observers and IUK Leadership Council. Congress elected Salahadin Bahadin (born 1950 – Hawraman) as a General Secretary with an outright (546 voted or 62 percent), while his rival, Abubakar Ali, only got 342 votes. Members of the movement’s Higher Observation Group, which are five active members and two inactive spare members, were also elected at congress, as were 27 members of IUK’s Leadership Council. Following this, the congress also passed the appointment of the heads of IUK party offices (which numbered 16 members and were chosen before congress by their respective offices) who also became members of IUK’s Leadership Council, raising the number of council’s members to 43. IUK holds five seats in the KRI Parliament and two seats in the Iraqi Council of Representatives. It is important to note that over the last few elections that the movement’s vote share within KRI has been decreasing. In 2014 Iraqi elections the party won four seats and in the previous 2013 KRI Parliamentary elections it won 10.
– IUK Turning its Back on its Example:
When IUK was founded, it described itself as an opposition movement focused on providing both “services” and “government oversight” to KRI citizens. In the context of the political space in KRI and the region’s opposition forces after 2009, it is arguable that this position was essential for IUK to adopt. However, the influence and activeness of the other opposition forces in KRI on local politics left IUK looking like a passive opposition movement. The success of other opposition forces in KRI forced IUK to compete against them. This competition left IUK struggle to compete for votes as it found the opposition wing of politics in KRI saturated with other political parties. For example, where IUK to have taken steps to become a vocal opposition, then it would have moved into to the previous political territory of the Goran Movement or the current political dominion of the New Generation Movement. Alternatively, if it is decided to return to its religious roots, it would likely fail to compete with the Islamic Group of Kurdistan.
The separation of politics from the religious call is the issue that continually plagues IUK’s congresses. Over its last eight congresses, the movement has failed to resolve this point of contention. Instead, the movement decided to repeatedly leave the issue unresolved to be picked up by the following congress. The problem is not only that the party continues to veil the issue; instead, it is that the problems that arise from the question contributed to the movement’s retrenchment in KRI politics. Some observers believe the movement’s indecision on this question tied its hands in both the religious and political spheres. So much so, it can no longer represent the religious politics of its past, nor can it serve its voters adequately as a loud opposition voice.
Another issue that has wounded IUK is its entrapment between representing the Islamic Ummah on the one hand and Kurdish nationalism on the other. Before 2003, IUK chose to turn its back on the Islamic Ummah and work as an opposition force to serve Kurdish nationalism. However, during these early days, IUK was in the privileged position of having few political rivals in the now saturated Kurdish political opposition space. IUK’s fierce defense of the Kurdish right to an independence referendum in 2005 and again in 2017, through its criticism of Islamic nations such as Turkey and Iran, among other countries, is perhaps example enough of IUK’s desired position in Kurdish politics. However, since the movement’s heavy losses in the 2018 KRI parliamentary elections, the party appears to be backtracking on its position regarding the Islamic Ummah over Kurdish nationalism. Two examples make IUK’s shift in this regard clear:
- Islamist politics, which is evident in IUK’s U-turn and attitude in support of the Islamic principles of brotherhood and religion. IUK’s ideological return to its Islamic roots may be the result of the movement’s conclusion that its retrenchment in Kurdish politics is the result of its initial decision to turn its back on the Islamic Ummah. It may also be down to the fact that IUK’s golden period was when principles of brotherhood and religion were influential within the movement. This new position was evident, in IUK’s most recent congress, where the issue of Kurdish independence took a back seat compared with previous congresses where the party beat the drums of Kurdish independence as a matter of pride and objective.
- The regional states, IUK’s defense of the Kurdish independence referendum in 2017 and its support for other issues regarding Kurdish nationalism in Baghdad resulted in a cooling of relations between IUK and neighboring states such as Turkey and Iran. Relations between IUK and Iran soured to the point that the latter now deals strictly with PUK and IUK’s local rivals the Gorran Movement and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan. More importantly for IUK, Turkey, which previously dealt with the movement as Turkey’s closest friend in KRI, now enjoys that relationship with KDP. Some observers argue that IUK’s current weakness is primarily the result of the loss of the movement’s support from regional states, which appear to be punishing IUK for adopting its nationalist position. As a result, after IUK’s eighth congress, the movement seems to have taken a new more Islamist position that promises to restore its relations with these states. It is noteworthy that the General-Secretary of IUK was the first Kurdish party leader to strongly condemn the killing of General Qassim Sulaimani by the United States and IUK had some of the highest rates of attendance at the General’s funeral. In respect to Turkey, IUK has increased its public criticism of the Kurdistan Workers party and the leaders of the party have reduced their criticisms of the Turkish state.
– Internal Democracy and the Risk of Dynastic Politics within the IUK:
In IUK’s sixth congress in 2016, Salahadin Bahadin did not nominate himself to retain the position of Secretary-General of the movement. Instead IUK was led by Mohammed Faraj until the seventh party congress. However, following Mohammed Faraj’s short term as a leader, Salahadin Bahadin reemerged and was elected IUK’s leader at the following two congresses.
His decision to step back from IUK in 2012, was seen as a positive example of political party conduct within IUK and Kurdish politics more widely. While his decision to step back represented hope for democrats within IUK, his subsequent decision to return to the party was the first blow to IUK’s supposed democratic model. The second blow came during the eighth congress where Salahadin Bahadin nominated himself again for the party leader after he has already served for 22 years as a General-Secretary of the party. However, this time Salahadin Bahadin was voted in with a visibly reduced vote-share. While ordinary members of IUK were unhappy with Salahadin Bahadin’s intentions, the support of IUK old guard ensured his reelection.
IUK’s financial capital and its administration, religious call and financial management are currently in the hands of close relatives of Salahadin Bahadin. Therefore, the potential for IUK to transform from a democratic movement to a dynastic one is ever-present.
– Future Scenarios:
Based on the different ideas and opinions within IUK, we assess the following scenarios to be likely:
- Islamist and brotherhood politics may dominate IUK’s rhetoric going forward. Movement in this direction may see IUK’s attempt to build an Islamic front in KRI with other Islamist parties. However, the success of any such front is doubtful as such coalitions in the past have failed. Furthermore, such a political move is dependent on its relations with the Islamic Group of Kurdistan; therefore, we expect to see efforts by IUK to rebuild ties with the Islamic Group of Kurdistan.
- IUK may decide to return to its government participation model (as was the case in 2006-2009 and 2013-2017), which in the short term is very likely. Such a move would allow the movement to resolve its financial problems and reset its relations with KDP, PUK, Turkey and Iran. The argument in this scenario is not that IUK’s political retrenchment is the result of its non-participation in government. If this was the case then the question would arise, why did the Goran Movement lose half of its votes after serving in the KRG coalition government?
- IUK may decide to return to a service provision-based opposition model in KRI. However, the current weakness of the principles of Islamic brotherhood in the Gulf States leads to a lack of financial assistance for IUK and the continued political instability in KRI and Federal Iraq make a return to this style of opposition politics for IUK challenging at best.