The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will officially hold its independence referendum on September 25, 2017.
In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, KRG acting President Masoud Barzani was asked why holding a referendum is a higher priority than being able to pay employee salaries, while parliament is inactive and his presidential term expired two years ago. His response, “We want to have this referendum to have independence, and that will help us to solve many of the problems automatically.”
His response raises a particular question: how will independence help solve the immense problems in the KRG “automatically?”
I previously wrote a piece titled “The Reality the Kurds in Iraq Choose to Ignore for the Sake of Attaining a State” highlighting five points the KRG leadership must address before declaring independence. These include transparency among ruling parties, equal distribution of aid, lack of Kurdish unity, inactive parliament, and free press. None of these issues will “automatically” solve themselves if independence is declared. In fact, if ignored now, vital concerns will continue to be normalized and the crises will likely deepen.
However, the issue of referendum is not the focal point. The primary concern lies with the approach and one of the arguments previously stated, inactive parliament. Legally, KRG acting President does not have the power to declare a referendum without the approval and vote of all 111 MPs. Also stated, one of the major functions of parliament is “…to debate the major issues of the day”; surely referendum falls in this category. Rather than reactivating parliament beforehand, the KRG leadership led by the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Barzani’s party, insisted to set a date and set conditions against the Gorran (Change) Movement party which holds the second highest number of seats with 24. How can an acting president whose term expired two years ago set conditions for a democratically elected parliament? Furthermore, if parliament is reactivated and decides to vote against or delay the referendum, then what?
The reality is that a KDP led referendum is utterly irresponsible due to the party’s unpopularity and strong ties with Turkey’s Erdogan. Rather than uniting Kurds internally, KDP instead ignores them and aims to gain support among the international community which is overwhelmingly against the referendum. True, a referendum does not mean outright independence, but a failed referendum can cause long term damage to Kurdish national unity.
Internal issues must be addressed before talks of referendum begin. The international community, especially those familiar with KRG’s political and social disputes will not support another failed state in the Middle East. To better lure backers towards the referendum, KRG must again prove that it is a model rather than a failed attempt. KDP must serve all of the KRG without preconditions instead of only its supporters if it intends to keep a level of legitimacy. Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) must do better in building a bridge between Gorran and KDP rather than taking sides if independence is its true intention. Gorran must be willing to acknowledge its own mistakes, taking a hard approach is less likely to produce results.
All three major political parties have so far failed in establishing solid backing on the matter of independence. Instead, they have produced nothing but deepening divisions among not only Kurds internally, but the diaspora as well. Masoud Barzani should not criticize Gorran Movement publically, this only hinders his own image and further proves KRGs disunity. Gorran Movement members should not be single handedly going to the European Union complaining about KDP issues, change begins at home.
So far the international community has legitimate reasons for not supporting the referendum, internal issues is far too great. KRG leadership is making a weak case when it continues the blame game. Furthermore, the prolonged split in the KRG results in ammunition for its neighbors, Turkey and Iran will continue to promote its destabilizing agenda in the region.
The world is watching how the KRG will handle its internal rifts as the referendum date looms closer and is judging whether they have the capability to handle disputes which will prove beneficial as a state.
Originally published at NRT English on July 18, 2017.