Internal Divides Behind the Kurdistan Referendum

Christine McCaffray van den Toorn

The Kurdistan Region’s “yes” vote in the independence referendum does not translate to unconditional support for independence in the short term.

On September 25, Iraqi Kurds voted in a referendum on independence. According to the Kurdistan Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission (KIHERC), 93 percent of participants supported independence, apparently confirming the Kurds’ desire for self-determination. The results have prompted a chorus of support for Kurdish statehood from Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leaders and their friends abroad, including members of Congress, former U.S. diplomats, journalists, and commentators, who argue that the majority of Kurds desire and “deserve” independence; that self-determination is a natural right; and that the international community should respect the “voice of the Kurdish people.” However, the results reinforce that Kurdish voices are incredibly diverse, and that opinions on independence are not as clear- cut as the 93 percent “yes” vote suggests.

The referendum was not endorsed or monitored by any international actors or elections’ monitoring groups, most notably the United Nations, the standard bearer for elections worldwide. This has cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process, and some Kurdish locals, officials, and NGOs, such as the Kurdistan Institute for Elections and the Badlisy Cultural Center, have made allegations of ballot stuffing and intimidation1—a problem that has plagued Kurdish elections in the past. Moreover, KIHERC, whose job it was to manage the referendum, is composed of party loyalists rather than independent experts and lacks the ability to investigate claims of fraud.

KIHERC has delayed publishing district-level results, and many suspect this is because they would contradict the official narrative of widespread and overwhelming support for independence. Unofficial results and leaks of official numbers by province and district seem to confirm this suspicion that support was far more varied. For example, although turnout was officially listed at 72 percent overall, unofficial reporting suggests it varied widely from province to province. Unofficial local sources estimated that turnout ranged from 80 to 95 percent in most parts of Duhok and Erbil province but was as low as 50 percent in most areas of Sulaimaniya and Halabja provinces.2 While this is an increase compared to past elections, higher overall turnout was expected given how significant and cross-cutting the issue of Kurdish independence is. The low turnout in these areas suggests that many Kurds who opposed independence may have simply not voted at all.

In disputed territories, interviews with local sources and unofficial news reports indicated a high percentage of “yes” votes, suggesting significant support for inclusion in an independent Kurdistan. Many minorities—and some Sunni Arabs—have expressed a preference for the KRG over the federal government of Iraq, which they regard as unable and unwilling to protect them from the threat of extremism. But the high “yes” percentage belies the deep divisions in the disputed territories. For example, Tuz Kh urmatu, a disputed and mixed Kurd and Turkmen town south of Kirkuk, had an unofficial “yes” vote over 90 percent—but turnout was only around 60 percent, and there were no polling stations in Turkmen areas.3 Interviews reveal that large segments among non-Kurdish minorities—Turkmen, Yezidis, Christians, Sunni Arabs, and Shabak—want to live under Iraqi federal government control, opposing the corrupt patronage of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which “lined people’s pockets but built nothing” and marginalized and threatened locals who chose different parties.4 These populations harbor deep resentment toward the KDP, who they blame for withdrawing when the Islamic State attacked in 2014 and preventing them from defending themselves.

Many said that for a non-Kurd to vote “no” to Kurdish independence in a town controlled by Kurdish forces meant jail, eviction, or losing one’s job, fearing personal repercussions for voting against self-determination—especially given that the KDP has forced out Yazidi IDPs whose relatives have worked with the majority-Shia Popular Mobilization Forces in the past. Past elections in disputed territories have been plagued with intimidation and fraud, creating an environment in which few felt free or safe to vote “no ”—even if the local populations were not reluctant to choose between the Erbil and Baghdad .

Meanwhile, two of the districts in Kurdistan with the lowest turnout and highest “no” votes were those assumed to want independence the most: Halabja, which the Saddam Hussein regime attacked with chemical weapons in 1988; and Ranya, which led a series of uprisings against the regime between 1982 and 1991. In interviews conducted in advance of the referendum, Kurdish leadership repeatedly pointed to Saddam’s genocidal policies as one of the sources of Kurds’ desire for independence, so the low turnout in these districts necessitates further explanation. Sulaimaniya, considered Kurdistan’s most nationalist city, also saw lower voter turnout. It is hard to imagine that Kurds in these areas are any less enthusiastic about self-determination than their counterparts in Erbil or Dohuk. Rather than opposition to independence, voting behavior in these areas was driven by two factors: broad popular dissatisfaction with the performance of the KRG’s political elites—especially the hegemonic leadership of Masoud Barzani’s KDP and its near exclusive role in crafting the referendum—and associated reservations about the timing of the vote.

The KRG has unfortunately failed to move beyond the Barzani and Talabani families’ duopoly, which has lost credibility in large parts of Kurdistan over the past few years. Bad governance, economic mismanagement, nepotism, and rampant corruption have led to rising popular frustration with the political status quo. Some government employees, especially teachers, did not vote or voted “no” because they had not been paid consistently in two years, saying, “How can you build a state if you can’t pay your employees?” These sentiments are particularly strong in areas dominated by the KDP’s political rivals, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran Movement, and these were the very districts with the lowest turnout and highest “no” vote in the referendum. This pattern reflects both a rebuke of KDP dominance and corruption but also of the other local government and political elites for failing to do any better than the Barzani family.

In addition, until days before the vote, actors such as Barham Salih, a widely respected former prime minister of the KRG who left the PUK in September to start his own party, silently protested the timing of the vote. Others, like Gorran and elements of the PUK, publicly opposed the timing, as did local businessman and media mogul Shaswar Abdulwahid, who led a “No for Now” campaign. And whereas posters and flags in support of the referendum covered the streets of Erbil and Dohuk in the days before the referendum, there were few in Sulamaniya save at the KDP headquarters.

The PUK had clear divisions within its leadership over the timing of the vote until the day before the referendum. Kosrat Rasul, the first deputy of the PUK, backed the vote, as did Malla Bakhtiar, chairman of the PUK political bureau. Lahur and Pavel Talabani, nephew and son of the late Jalal Talabani respectively, were inclined to delay the vote,5 while Pavel’s brother Qubad, the deputy prime minister of the KRG, openly lobbied for it. PUK branch officials in Kirkuk announced two days before the referendum that the vote would not be held there, only to backtrack and support it on September 24. The same day, Pavel Talabani published a statement on his Facebook page that a decision had been made to delay the referendum, only to take it down minutes later. Meanwhile, Gorran did not support the referendum until the night before, when it announced that its followers were “free to vote how they choose.” While members of Gorran and the PUK said they would support the referendum if the KRG parliament approved it, when parliament did on September 15 both Gorran and six members of the PUK boycotted the session, labeling it unlawful. Of the Islamist parties, the Kurdistan Islamic Union supported the referendum while the Kurdistan Islamic Group opposed it. Both parties supported UN and international initiatives to delay the referendum, only to backtrack at the last moment when these efforts were rejected by the KDP.

Once the referendum was certain to be held, the KDP would have branded leaders of the other parties as traitors if they abstained or voted against independence. Their endorsement—like the “yes” vote of many citizens in the Kurdistan Region—is more of a “yes, but.” It reveals that over the past decade, many Kurds have attached preconditions to their aspiration of independence. In the lead-up to the referendum, voters and leaders were torn between their obligation to honor their predecessors who died fighting for independence and their reluctance to provide the KDP a mandate to perpetuate the political status quo. As a recent college graduate, a Yezidi from Bashiqa, a disputed territory in Ninewa, said, “I cannot vote against the KRG and disrespect my Kurdish ancestors but I cannot vote for them and disrespect the thousands of Yezidi women who were slaves to the Islamic State because of the Peshmerga.” Ultimately, emotion trumped pragmatism, and many said they “could not vote ‘no’ to independence.”* But their vote does not translate to unconditional support for independence in the short term.

The political leadership has continued to highlight their reservations about the trajectory of the KRG under the KDP since the vote. PUK member Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, widow of Jalal Talabani, has tried to distance herself and her party from the referendum. Along with Gorran, she has rejected Barzani’s push to form a new “political council,” which many suspect is designed to supplant Kurdistan’s already weak governing institutions. Barham Salih had previously announced a new Coalition for Democracy and Justice, emphasizing that reform and good governance, not independence, should be the priority.

The referendum has revealed and deepened the divisions among Kurdish leaders and elites and their growing rejection of—or at least noncompliance with—KDP unilateralism. If self-determination, the Kurds’ long-held dream, cannot bring them together, then little else will. Political rivalry among the main Kurdish parties and the schisms it has created have become so deep that even the one issue that has always united the Kurds “now divides us.”* 

While Kurds dream of eventual independence, what they are demanding now is good governance. External actors can support them by engaging Kurdish leadership on internal KRG reform, as well as real negotiations with the federal government of Iraq—possibly starting with dialogue toward resolving the status of the disputed territories, where conflict is most likely to break out. Done right, this negotiated process will mean stability for the Kurds, Iraq, and the Middle East. But forcefully backing independence that does not have wide supports rings of colonial and cold war cynicism in which foreign states pick favorites and meddle in regional affairs—a situation that does not bode well for the Kurds in the medium or long term.

Christine McCaffray van den Toorn is the Director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimaniya. Follow her on Twitter @vandentoorn.

* This article is based on interviews with voters and local political actors and leaders over the course of three months before and shortly after the referendum.

  1. Interviews with the author, Sulaimaniya, October 2017.
    2. See forthcoming Institute of Regional and International Studies (IRIS) “KRG referendum results reveal varied opinions on independence” for a comprehensive chart of reported official and unofficial election results, http://auis.edu.krd/iris/.
    3. Interviews with Kurdish and Turkmen researchers, Tuz Khurmatu, September 26, 2017.
    4. Interviews in Tuz Khurmatu and the Ninewa Plains over the past three months to six years.
    5. Interviews with local actors.

 

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