Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

What is at stake in the Kurdistan poll?

The countdown to a stand-off over the self-determination of Iraqi Kurdistan has begun and could be bad for the Kurds, Iraq and the world, writes Salah Nasrawi

What is at  stake in the  Kurdistan  poll?
What is at stake in the Kurdistan poll?

The most striking thing about the vote next month over whether the autonomous Kurdistan Region should secede from Iraq is perhaps the lack of a national Kurdish consensus and an agreement with Baghdad for an amicable divorce.

The international community has also fallen short in its support for Kurdish independence, with the United States, the European Union and regional heavyweights urging the Kurds to call off the referendum.

The regional government of Kurdistan, presided over by Masoud Barzani, has announced plans to hold a unilateral referendum on separate statehood on 25 September, in defiance of Iraq’s legal and constitutional framework.

Voters will be asked if they want Iraqi Kurdistan to be an independent country.

Critics, however, have warned that a referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq carries grave risks if it happens without an understanding with Baghdad.

The central Shia-led government, led by Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi, has promised to use all the measures at its disposal to uphold the constitution and prevent the break-up of the country.

Some Shia MPs have signalled their intention to initiate legal proceedings against those responsible for the referendum’s organisation. Hardline politicians and militia leaders have even indicated that the secession might lead to a war with the Kurds.

Consequently, the political situation between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan has been moving implacably towards full-blown conflict with unpredictable consequences. In neighbouring countries, anger is also growing.

Turkey, which had earlier described the referendum as “irresponsible,” is now saying it will not tolerate the formation of new “artificial” states along its southern border.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on Friday that his government would not hesitate “to respond to any threatening attitude towards our country’s sovereign rights, its security, and its interests.”

Iran, which has cracked down on home-grown Kurdish militants and has carried out strikes on Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, has stepped up pressure on the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq to halt the referendum.

Mohamed Bagheri, the Iranian army’s chief of staff, said the referendum “is unacceptable to Iraq’s neighbours.” He said maintaining Iraq’s independence and territorial integrity was “in the interests of all.”

Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Abul-Gheit told Barzani in a letter that the referendum would “open the door to the winds of fragmentation and splits” in the Middle East.

Even the Kurds’ closest allies are urging them to postpone the vote.

The US State Department has repeatedly voiced concerns that an independence referendum would be a distraction from “more urgent priorities,” such as the defeat of Islamic State (IS) militants.

In its recent show of unease, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked Barzani to postpone the referendum on independence.

It is not hard to see why the referendum has been facing opposition from the Baghdad government, Iraq’s neighbours and Western nations, but what is more surprising is that opposition to the vote has also risen among the Kurds.

While the majority of Kurdish parties have expressed support for the move, others have been vocal in expressing their objections to the referendum.

Last Saturday, the pro-reform Goran Party that won the second-largest number of seats in the now defunct Kurdistan parliament, renewed its opposition to the vote, setting a number of preconditions before it would support the referendum.     

The party, whose name means “change” in Kurdish, said that a bid for independence from Iraq was premature. The party said Barzani should not have moved unilaterally before forging a national consensus and reaching an understanding with Baghdad.

It also wants the Kurdistan parliament, suspended since 2015 after Goran refused to support a second extension of Barzani’s term in office, reconvened.

The suspension of the parliament and the unity government prompted violent protests and political deadlock at the time.

In recent weeks ordinary Kurds, in particular those in Suleimaniyah, have begun criticising the referendum as an attempt by Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (PUK) to shore up nationalist support and as camouflage to hide its mismanagement in government.

Last week, Kurdish activists launched an unexpected domestic push for a “no” vote in the independence referendum. Organisers of the campaign entitled “No for Now” believe that the 25 September vote will not serve the interests of Kurdistan’s population.

The region’s failing economy is another major challenge to a sovereign Kurdistan. The continued development of the capacities of the Kurdistan economy will depend largely on broad-based economic growth, which in turn depends on stability.  

Iraqi Kurdistan is also a land-locked region bordered by Turkey, Iran and Syria. Without normal and peaceful relations with its neighbours and Baghdad, Kurdistan will not be able to address its economic challenges and promote development.

After years of leadership failure, a patronage system, government mismanagement and corruption, Kurdistan’s economy is now in a shambles. If the region were to become independent it could hardly survive economically.

Despite revenues of a 17 per cent share of Iraq’s budget and the lucrative sale of oil from fields it has seized from Iraq, the KRG has not been able to pay salaries regularly to government employees for years.

Another question of contention with Baghdad is the oil-rich province of Kirkuk and huge swathes of territory that Kurdish Peshmergas fighters have seized and declared to be part of Kurdistan.

By including Kirkuk and these territories in the referendum next month, the KRG has infuriated local Arab, Turkmen and other ethnicities who reject Kurdish claims over them.

Meanwhile, Barzani and the referendum’s backers in other parties are sticking to the plan to hold an independence poll on 25 September despite requests to postpone it.

For its part, Baghdad is not expected to budge on blocking the referendum, and it insists the issue was settled in the post-Saddam constitution that made Kurdistan a federal region within Iraq following the 2003 US-led invasion and the collapse of the regime led by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.  

How events now unfold will be unpredictable. Both sides will need to take care not to overreact, in order to avoid tipping the balance of public opinion towards a confrontation.

While Iraqi Kurdistan cannot plausibly claim to be a victim of a federal political system its own leaders helped to create after Saddam’s fall, the Baghdad government could do much more to persuade the region to stay.

One thing which it should do is to work to make the system more attractive to the Kurds and promise to hold a constitutional convention that would look again at the distribution of powers agreed on in the 2005 constitution.

A truly democratic, non-sectarian government and a political system based on civic nationhood and shared citizenship is what Iraq needs in order to offer the longer-term hope of bridging ethnic and sectarian divides and defusing communal tensions in the country.

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