Iraqi President and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) leader Jalal Talabani has returned to Iraq from a two week sojourn at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, where he underwent medical tests and treatments. While President Talabani is up and about now, there is always suspicion when a visit is so opaque. There may be no reason to suspect anything more serious than old age and poor diet but, even so, the decline in his health is apparent to anyone who sees him. Everyone grows old.
It's time for both Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq to have an open discussion about what will happen after Talabani's death. By ensuring a transparent and smooth transition, Talabani can give a lasting gift to Iraq and Kurdistan.
Kurds—and Americans and Europeans, for that matter—are tired of the Byzantine maneuvering among Kosrat Rasul, Barham Salih, and other PUK functionaries and Talabani family members for supremacy in the party. Kurdish leaders like to describe themselves as democrats. Ordinary people know, however, that self-descriptions in the Middle East are meaningless. After all, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Yemeni leader Ali Abdullah Saleh also called themselves democrats. And while PUK leaders also describe themselves as reformers, so does Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
The test of true democracy is the repeated peaceful transfer of power between political opponents. The people of Sulaymani, regardless of which party they voted for, deserve to know what will happen to the party and its property the day after Talabani's funeral. There simply is too much risk for chaos and political instability if the transition is undefined. Certainly, Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Masud Barzani has plans for the day after Talabani's demise. That Talabani will not discuss the future openly does a disservice both to his supporters and to other residents of Sulaymani, and raises the prospect of instability and violence.
Discussion of transition is equally important in Baghdad. Talabani had done a good job as Iraq's president even if, especially since the last election, his post is more ceremonial than functional. Still, Talabani's absence will leave a void in Baghdad. Kurds may have a definitive opinion about their role in Baghdad and perhaps preservation of a Kurd in the presidency, but there is no consensus among Iraq's myriad communities. Kurds may assume the precedent they established for post-Saddam Iraq is sacrosanct, but Iraq does not have a Lebanon-style confessional system, and many Iraqis will resist its implementation. Talabani's failure to discuss what happens after his incapacitation or death is selfish and undercuts the long-term strategic position of Kurds in Iraq. After all, Kurds demanded the presidency as insurance for their own security in Iraq, especially given the abuses they had suffered in the past.
Talabani should accept his own mortality and start the transition discussion now. He need not step down, but that is no reason not to talk about what or who comes next. Here, he can make a true contribution to both Iraqi and Kurdish democracy. Transition discussions are anathema to politicians like regional president Masud Barzani, who will never engage in such talk voluntarily, but they are extremely valuable in democracies in which leaders recognize they serve the people and not vice versa. The initiation of such a discussion by Talabani will create a precedent that Barzani would find difficult to resist while if he still wishes to cloak himself in the mantle of democracy.
Talabani's legacy is not yet fully written. Certainly it will be mixed: On one hand, he was a great freedom fighter who brought Kurds unprecedented opportunities. Under his tutelage, Sulaymani experienced a renaissance, and he will go down in history as Iraq's first Kurdish president. On the other hand, his behavior during the Kurdish civil war, massive corruption, and nepotism will tarnish his memory. If, in his twilight years or months, Talabani can put Kurdistan on track to become a true democracy rather than an oligarchy, he might leave Iraq and Kurdistan on a positive note.