In the weeks leading up to and after the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) referendum, the Kurds’ aspirations faced regional hostility, except from Israel. However, the region-wide opposition is not the only obstacle standing in the way of Kurdish statehood. Rather, much like the Palestinians, Iraq’s Kurds face significant hurdles in governance. In order to be truly meaningful, the September referendum needed to be a means to achieve Kurdish unity and democracy.
As I wrote leading up to the referendum, internal divisions and stalling of democratic processes in the KRG meant that the vote had to help unite the Kurds and reactivate their democratic institutions in order to gain legitimacy. Without reopening parliament and continuing a democratic process, the referendum would have simply been a means of buttressing KRG President Massoud Barzani’s authority and preserving his KDP party’s power. Fortunately, the Iraqi Kurdish parties took initiatives to make amends with each other before the referendum. The Kurdish parliament convened for the first time in two years and the opposition Gorran Movement gave the vote its blessing just days before the referendum.
Still, other domestic rifts threatened to undermine the prospects for Kurdish independence. Before September 25, this may have even created skepticism about voter turnout. Though the older Iraqi Kurdish generation strongly supported statehood due to their While memories of suffering under Saddam Hussein drove many older Iraqi Kurds to strongly support statehood, the younger Kurdish community was initially expected to boycott the referendum or vote no on independence. The younger Iraqi Kurds are less confident in their leaders’ collective ability to run an independent Kurdistan because this demographic is more exposed to the political divide and relative incompetence of the Iraqi Kurdish leadership. Where their parents remember Ba’athist oppression, this age group recalls the devastating four year civil war between the KDP and PUK in the 1990s.
However, such concerns about a generational divide may have been overstated. Perhaps partly due to rapprochement between parties, the referendum received a robust voter turnout of 72 percent and a high “yes” result of 93 percent, thus strengthening Ebril’s ability to leverage for independence. Had the referendum been a more partisan affair, such a massive and positive turnout would not have been possible.
Indeed, independence often requires national political unity and legitimate institutional representation. In this sense, the Palestinian national movement is at a similar juncture to Kurdish aspirations. In the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s recent project “Revitalizing Palestinian Nationalism,” 58 Palestinian leaders from various fields were asked what the most important institution is in Palestinian society today. A clear majority said that it is their governing institutions and that those structures need to be united for any progress to be made. As Palestinian development economist Raja Khalidi has observed, “Without national unity, achieving any potential that might exist for national liberation is impossible.”
In their recent English language biography of Mahmoud Abbas, The Last Palestinian, Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon suggest that political fragmentation is one of the primary issues holding Palestinians back from signing a final-status agreement with Israel (and, presumably achieving independence).
For instance, at Camp David in 2000, Mahmoud Abbas was less flexible in negotiations than he had been previously due to his power struggle with fellow negotiator Ahmed Qurei. Since Yasser Arafat seemed to give Qurei a boost in political power in back channel negotiations, Abbas feared that any success in negotiations would be credited to his rival. Accordingly, he felt this undermined his own standing in Palestinian politics.
Abbas continued to struggle to commit to serious negotiations with Israel in order to bring his people independence after losing Gaza to Hamas in 2007. After losing the Strip, the Palestinian president could no longer speak or negotiate on behalf of all Palestinians in the territories and he could not commit to legitimate peace talks with Israel without risking political repercussions.
Thus, just as the Palestinians cannot pursue independence and negotiations with Israel as long as their national movement is divided, so too will the Kurds be unable to negotiate secession from Baghdad and proceed towards statehood without national unity.
Despite the initiatives the Iraqi Kurdish parties took to overcome their differences before the referendum, there is still a ways to go until they can viably push for independence. Perhaps the next step the Iraqi Kurds can take is to follow through on the general elections scheduled on November 1. By holding a free and fair contest and respecting the results, the KRG leadership will strengthen their national movement’s ability to navigate separation from Iraq.