KRG could be using referendum to squeeze concessions from Baghdad
As the official campaign for Kurdistan’s independence referendum opened September 5, foreign diplomats and Iraqi officials headed to Erbil in a final attempt to persuade the leadership of the autonomous region to call off the vote.
More than 5 million people are eligible to vote in the September 25 referendum, including those who live within the recognised boundaries of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), those in territory disputed with the government in Baghdad and diaspora Kurds.
Kurdistan’s close international allies and near neighbours have been united in their calls for the KRG to suspend the vote, fearing that the outcome would further destabilise the region so soon after Baghdad declared victory over the Islamic State (ISIS).
The outcome, if the referendum goes ahead, appears to be a foregone conclusion. In an informal poll in 2005 alongside parliamentary elections, 98.9% voted in favour of independence.
A belief in the justice of having an independent state is nearly universal among the Kurds, who believe that their aspirations towards independence were thwarted in the carve-up of the Ottoman Empire after the first world war.
This time, however, dissident voices within the KRG are questioning whether the time or the circumstances are right for a vote to go it alone.
The date for the referendum was announced in June by Masoud Barzani, president of the KRG and head of the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). The initiative has somewhat less-than-wholehearted support from the KDP’s historic rival, Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The Gorran Movement, which beat the PUK to second place in parliamentary elections in 2014, wants the referendum postponed, as does the small Kurdistan Islamic Group. Gorran argues that only the KRG parliament has the right to call an independence vote but the chamber has been suspended since 2015 in a dispute between itself and the KDP.
Because of these political rifts, enthusiasm for the independence vote is more evident in KDP strongholds such as Erbil and Dohuk than in eastern regions where other parties hold sway.
A “No for Now” movement has been launched, led by Shaswar Abdulwahid, a Kurdish businessman and owner of Kurdistan’s Nalia Radio and Television. The subsequent protest resignations of some of the network’s top presenters underlined divisions over the referendum issue.
A younger generation of Kurds appears less fixated on the issue of an early referendum than on tackling chronic problems that faced the region even before the KRG was forced to confront the ISIS invasion of 2014.
Issues of mismanagement, corruption and public sector pay have been exacerbated by the battle with Baghdad over the rights to Kurdistan’s oil.
To put its books in order before the scheduled referendum, the KRG recently paid the first $1 billion tranche in settlement of a long-running dispute with the UAE’s Dana Gas.
Sceptics suggest that, in economic terms, the KDP has little to boast of in recent years since the boom period that followed the 2003 Iraqi war. The kudos it would gain from sponsoring a successful referendum might, however, give it a boost in presidential and parliamentary elections that have been scheduled for November 1.
One viable theory is that the KRG is using the likely “yes” vote to squeeze Baghdad into making concessions either before or after September 25 or to encourage Erbil’s allies to work to influence Baghdad.
Hoshyar Zebari, a former Iraqi government minister and now a senior adviser to the KRG, has suggested a “yes” vote would strengthen the Kurdish position in negotiations with Baghdad rather than automatically lead to independence.
One outstanding issue is the implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which was to have settled territorial disputes between Baghdad and Erbil by the end of 2007 by polling their inhabitants. Barzani has cited non-implementation of the clause as one motive for calling the September referendum.
However, talks between the two sides in both Baghdad and Erbil have failed to reach a breakthrough that might persuade the referendum’s political sponsors to cancel or postpone the vote.
Those Kurds — almost certainly a minority — who intend to vote “no” to independence, at least for now, are putting their faith in outsiders to persuade the KRG to change its mind. The United States, European allies, Turkey and Iran have, to varying degrees and from various motivations, opposed the referendum plan.
Even at the 11th hour, some in Kurdistan are betting that enough outside pressure is building to ensure the much-heralded vote will not take place.