19 August 2017 03:00

Referendum debate in Iraq is growing

Iraqi Kurdistan is experiencing a period in which the debates about postponing the referendum are deepening.


Amidst scorching temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius, the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is debating an independence referendum which will ask whether the Kurdistan Region should break away from Bagdad and become independent. 

It is difficult to reflect the full range of discussions taking place in relation to the announcement that this referendum will take place on 25 September, however, in summary, it is right to say that the KRG as a whole agrees that “The Kurds have dreamt of independence for 100 years, and this must be secured either through referendum or otherwise”. 

The debates and differences of opinion are more to do with the way in which the referendum is being held and its timing, however, the announcement of the referendum appears to have stoked existing problems. Those who argue that the referendum should take place on 25 September say that, “there is no reason why there should be any delay and that with recent developments in the region the foundation is right for independence”. 

Those who argue that it should be postponed claim that “ (the KRG) Parliament has been closed for two years, the internal political fractures are still waiting for a solution, the decision to have a referendum was not made by Parliament, and whilst there is a deep economic crisis – including the failure to pay salaries –if countries such as Turkey and Iran apply economic sanctions after the referendum takes place, the (autonomous Kurdish) area will not survive”. It is possible to summarise the two sides in the following terms; on the one hand there are those that argue that the Kurds “need to be independent first so that economic and political problems can be resolved” and those that argue that “declaring independence without first resolving existing problems will make the situation worse”. 

Alongside the referendum discussions, the internal political dialogue is also continuing. It is being suggested that the KRG Parliament – which was closed down due to heated arguments about the leadership – will re-open and the referendum announcement will be presented to Parliament for a vote. Another subject of dispute is Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution. Whilst some argue that Article 140 provides the right to seek independence through a referendum, others argue that this same article prohibits an independence referendum. Increasingly harsh statements are also being made by Bagdad since the referendum was announced. Only recently, a delegation from the KRG visited Bagdad but little is known about the content of those discussions. 

I met with the Deputy Chairman of the KRG, Kosret Resul at Suleymaniye. He told me “If the Kurds want to be free they must make this decision themselves. The referendum is a joint decision by all the parties. Some say that the referendum should take place and some argue that it should be postponed. We say to those that say it should be postponed; what is your alternative? If you have an alternative, come let’s talk. Once the referendum takes place, we will not declare independence the next day. There must be a process. If Bagdad puts an offer on the table, we will also consider that. (If there is a decision in favour of independence) surely they will not attack us with chemical weapons. In fact, they have tried before and so they will find reasons to attack Kurdistan regardless of the independence issue.  We want to resolve our problem peacefully through talks.” 

I also interviewed Muhammed Tevfik from the Gorran Movement (the Movement for Change Party) who wants the referendum to be postponed. Tevfik said “We are not against the referendum in principle, but this decision should have been approved by Parliament. The referendum should have been discussed with Bagdad and then a referendum decision should have been made by the KRG parliament – not outside it. We need to be in dialogue and reach consensus with Bagdad. According to the Constitution, we are a part of Iraq. Secondly, neighbouring countries and even the international community are saying that the referendum should be postponed in light of the sensitive situation in the region. Our people will ask ‘you have been talking about a Kurdish state for the past 18 months. We went to referendum and said yes. What now?’ If we leave our problems unresolved we can expect bigger problems and all eventualities are possible”

Iraqi Kurdistan is experiencing a period in which the debates about postponing the referendum are deepening. These discussions are not limited to the KRG. It is as yet unclear what the reaction of Bagdad, and indeed Turkey, Iran, the USA and the International Community will be to the referendum announcement. No doubt that the issue of the referendum will be the beginning of a multilateral process.