What is behind the victory of the Kurdistan referendum?

Why didn’t fears of that hostility affect the outcome of the vote?

KURDISH REGIONAL Government president Masoud Barzani salutes the crowd while attending a rally before the September 25th dependence referendum in Erbil. (photo credit: REUTERS)
KURDISH REGIONAL Government president Masoud Barzani salutes the crowd while attending a rally before the September 25th dependence referendum in Erbil.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Kurdistan’s recent yes vote in its independence referendum is a historic moment, but what was involved in getting to that point? How did a semi-autonomous region decide that it was better to become a full country, even against the advice of the international community? What pushed its population to decide that nationhood was the most appropriate option? Part of the answer lies in a century of bitter conflict with Iraq, from the very inception of that country, created by colonial powers in the wake of World War I. It is a century peppered with attempts from the center to put down revolts at the fringes with increasing violence, and in which the Kurdish people have been subject to arbitrary arrest, repression and even mass murder. The very tactics that were designed to contain Kurdistan’s separatist tendencies have fueled them by making it clear that the Kurdish people cannot remain within Iraq in any kind of safety.
An awareness of this was probably responsible for the high turnout in the referendum, as was a sense that this was the one chance Kurdistan might have to determine its future. Yet these conditions are probably not sufficient to explain all of it.
Another part of the answer lies in the continuing efforts of Masoud Barzani, who has been President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region since 2005, and his team within the KRG. Their role has been partly the sustained promotion of independence for Kurdistan, and partly helping to create sufficiently stable conditions for a meaningful referendum to take place. Importantly, Barzani’s team was able to provide free and fair conditions for the referendum, making sure that it could not be dismissed as something rigged for the yes vote. It was able to secure cross-party support in Kurdistan to show that independence was an issue bigger than political divisions.
We cannot underestimate Barzani’s personal appeal in the context of the referendum, either.
Several times in the crowds in Erbil, I met individuals who said that they were there purely because of Barzani. Kurdistan’s people genuinely love their president and that has translated at least in part to a willingness to engage with the referendum he called. His ability to engage with Kurdistan’s population has meant that they have listened when he has called for them to vote.
THERE HAVE also been influences in the economic field that have moved Kurdistan further away from Iraq in recent years. One was the decision by Iraqi former prime minister Nouri Maliki to cut off the KRG’s budget. While the move was probably intended to reduce calls for independence by showing Kurdistan its dependence on Baghdad, it in fact forced the KRG to find ways to become more self-sufficient, and thus proved to Kurdistan’s population that the project of independence was viable. This economic development has included links with former rivals in the region, including Turkey, which may help to offset some of the hostility arising from the vote.
Why didn’t fears of that hostility affect the outcome of the vote? One reason is that, after so much time facing threats from outside Kurdistan, its population has become accustomed to not giving in to such threats. Another is probably a feeling that, over time, the hostility will lessen as surrounding nations see that Kurdistan does not represent the threat to their existence that they currently believe.
Iran is a good example of this. It undoubtedly sought to play a negative role in the referendum, seeking to block it while bringing up issues such as the future of Kirkuk in an effort to frighten voters away from the polls. This is largely based on a fear that Kurdish independence from Iraq will cause its own Kurds to seek secession. It talks about the potential of Kurdistan to threaten its existence, yet what does it really have to fear from a democratic state next door to it? One element that will hopefully allay these fears is the process that follows the Yes vote. The next step will not be immediate secession, but will, instead, be a process of negotiation with Baghdad and neighboring countries. There is currently a dispute over the readiness of the sides involved for this negotiation, but Barzani has called for Baghdad to come to the negotiating table.
That Kurdistan is prepared to do that shows how important independence is to it. It is not just important enough to fight for; it is important enough to do things peacefully, talking to those who have sought to oppress it and negotiating in good faith even after those around it have made their hostility clear. Its people have made their will clear in the referendum; what follows will show how serious both Kurdistan’s neighbors and the international community are about stability and democracy in the wider region.
The writer holds a master’s degree in Law in Arbitration and Alternative Dispute Resolution from Kingston University and is currently working on his PhD.