As Tip O’Neill coined it, “all politics is local.” Accordingly, the local dimension of the Kurdistan referendum is a core aspect, but underplayed as the news focuses on regional and international repercussions. The internal political moves that led up to the referendum and the referendum’s results will define KRG politics in the near future, but they are less clear to those outside of the Kurdistan region due to their complexity and language barriers.
In order to understand the complex decision-making process and the involved actors’ intentions, we must deconstruct Iraqi Kurdistan’s political horse trades and the different objectives of its elites. The September 25th referendum entered Iraqi Kurdistan political jargon in 2005 when the Kurdish Referendum Movement organized an informal referendum, the result of which was overwhelmingly in favor of independence. Although unbinding, the 2005 referendum was a strategy that built leverage by uniting the Kurdish people around a shared desire. However, by publicly demonstrating this desire but not translating it into any tangible capital, the Kurds appeared to be demanding something that the world would not acknowledge. This disillusioned feeling explains why most ordinary Kurds are now justifying their attempt at independence from an ethical perspective, rather than facing the harsh realities of real politics and balance of power. The analysis below gets away from this idealistic perspective of the referendum, instead focusing on the political parties and how they understood it.
Kurdistan Democratic Party
Considering this background, the lack of consensus, and the fragmented Kurdish politics, most political figures viewed the referendum concept with a mixture of disbelief and sarcasm when Masoud Barzani brought the idea back to the political sphere and announced the voting day as September 25th. Although the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which Barzani heads, lead the push for the referendum, the KDP had historically only wanted more autonomy in Iraq. This paradigm shift must be understood domestically. For the KDP, circumstances were different this time. In post-Saddam Iraq, the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) adopted dynastic politics. The two parties lost a great deal of public support due to uncontrolled corruption, nepotism, and authoritarian tendencies, which sparked protests over the years and led to widespread public dissatisfaction with KRG politics. The political parties also lost the draw of the Kurdish nationalism narrative. This form of romantic nationalism is common in areas that are less politically developed, where national boundaries seldom coincide with those of existing ethnic identities, such as the Middle East. Hence nationalism here became “a movement not so much to protect the individual against the injustices of an authoritarian state, but rather an attempt to redraw political boundaries to fit the contours of ethnic bodies.” This form of nationalism is common everywhere, with adherents characterizing it with sacrifice, martyrdom, and struggle. Today a version of this nationalism is widespread among the Iraqi Shia also.
Both KDP and PUK, after more than two decades of poor governing, needed a new narrative to re-enchant to the population. This was particularly urgent for Barzani in the later stages of his political life. Barzani, who lost his presidential legitimacy in 2015 (his term technically expired in 2013), forcibly expelled the democratically elected head of parliament, Yousif M. Sadiq, from Erbil in 2015, and is now clinging to power. Following Sadiq’s expulsion, parliament closed and remained so until a few weeks before the referendum. It is now open albeit merely as a rubber stamp. Barzani utilized the referendum to reappear as a charismatic savior. More importantly, he managed to monopolize the independence narrative in absence of other Kurdish nationalist icons like Talabani and Nawsherwan Mustafa.
The two parties relied on the legacy of their guerrilla past to cement their legitimacy. Currently, they rely on the fulfillment of the historic Kurdish dream of independence in order to maintain their reign. This is a common view among opposition parties. Before elaborating more on the opposition, it is necessary to decode the PUK’s views, as a both partner and foe of KDP.
Following the illness of its charismatic leader, Talabani, who recently died in Berlin, the PUK is in disarray. It is not a unified political party, and in fact, it never was. Today’s disarray has historical and structural roots within the party. Nowadays, the PUK is mimicking the KDP in moving toward a dynastic rule. Considering it built most of its identity and legitimacy on opposing the KDP dynastic rule, the transition was surprisingly smooth. This clarifies a lot about the socio-political structure of Kurdistan politics, which is characterized by a wide gap between rhetoric and reality, a common phenomenon in the Middle East.
The PUK is torn between loyalty to its constituency and the KDP party echelons that hold the wealth and power. It cannot abandon its constituency, which, through civil war and the continuing soft civil war mechanisms prevalent in daily life in the Kurdistan region, is taught to be anti-KDP. For the same reason, it is difficult for the PUK to stand against the Gorran Movement and side with the KDP, as the PUK and Gorran are drawn from the same constituency.
Regionally, during the Kurdish civil war of the 1990’s, Iran smartly utilized Kurdish infighting to make the PUK its close ally. One could argue this also has historic and geographical roots, as the PUK support base borders Iran. On the other hand, there are cultural and economic factors and memory that also make the PUK closer to Baghdad than the KDP. There are other reasons that the PUK is closer to Baghdad as well. Talabani always dreamt of being Iraqi president and was prepared to compromise to achieve his goal. He stayed in Baghdad, abandoned Kurdistan, and handed the KRG over to Barzani. Barzani and Talabani are two very different men. Barzani is a hard-headed, conservative, and uncompromising tribal man, accustomed to order and to being listened to. Conversely, Talabani is an urban, educated, and open personality, more canny and accustomed to uncertainty, changes and, more importantly, compromise. Hence, we have the current political deadlock situation in Kurdistan.
Initially, a significant number of PUK party echelons supported Barzani’s bid for a referendum, but the closer the day of the referendum came, the more hesitant the PUK became. The party was under pressure from both Iran and its constituency to respond to the international community’s urgings but found it difficult to make a U-turn. Ideally, the PUK would have liked to be neutral on the issue, something becoming more unlikely, not only in increasingly polarized Kurdish politics, but in Iraq and the entire Middle East. At the eleventh hour, the PUK supported the referendum.
The Gorran Movement is the leading opposition party in Iraqi Kurdistan. Gorran initially did not formulate a position on the referendum because they did not believe it would happen, instead thinking it was Barzani’s ploy to promote himself. Additionally, Gorran’s old guard differs little from the PUK and KDP when it comes to Kurdish nationalism, as they all have lived through the same political experiences. The old guard’s ideology and worldview was not likely to change radically.
This particular cultural background led to Gorran’s stance to remain neutral as a party and let its members vote as they saw fit. It was not opposing the independence movement, but rather regarded it as Barzani’s bid to further monopolize Iraqi Kurdish politics.
Gorran’s lack of a creative approach may have hurt it. By standing on the sidelines and being taken by surprise when the referendum did take place made it look weak, a bystander rather than an active actor leading the opposition and demanding political change.
Gorran’s ambiguous decision might be rooted in the identity of movement: although called the Gorran Movement, it is neither movement nor a political party. In this case, Gorran was unsure whether to become a social movement and demand change, either by rejecting the referendum as political ploy or challenging Barzani’s intentions, or to oppose Barzani as a political party and compete with him for power.
In addition to the three nationalist parties there are two Islamic-oriented political parties. The two parties were divided on the issue of the referendum. The Kurdistan Islamic Party (KIU) was pro-referendum and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) opposed it.
Muslim Brotherhood (MB) ideology influences the KIU, which has two implications. First, the party did not oppose the referendum because of its closeness to the KDP, which in turn is close to Turkey and favors Turkey as a possible MB regime in the Middle East. Second, the MB ideology encourages it to both identify with the ruling elite to be close to power, and to work with the public through apolitical tactics such as welfare programs.
In contrast, the KIG originates from a jihadi background and competes with the KIU for the Islamic oriented constituency. The KIG allied with Gorran to stand against the KDP closure of parliament. As a result, the KIG has been able to tap into populist anger against the government.
The immediate aftermath
Despite all the differences, eventually all the political parties in the region came together. It was the moment when Kurds felt politically and emotionally isolated. Seeing themselves as allies of the West, they never expected the “extraordinary display of unanimity exhibited by the world’s most powerful governments in opposing Kurdish independence.” Some argued to postpone the referendum, others that that Kurds should go ahead with it in defiance of the international condemnation. Neither of the arguments were realistic: there is unlikely to be a time when the world accepts Kurdish independence, but there will likely be a high price to standing against the global community. In the end, the referendum results show that 92% of Kurds voted in favor of independence. Despite that show of unity, the Kurdish political parties remain divided.
The referendum might cause international trouble for the KRG in the near future. But, just as important, the referendum will have an immediate impact on the Kurdistan’s political landscape. The establishment of the ‘Political Leadership Council of Kurdistan-Iraq’ is one obvious outcome. The council was previously called the ‘High Referendum Council.’ The name change, and its continued life after the referendum, suggests that the people who were heading the referendum should now run the region, and they justify this with the election results. The new council has sparked opposition from a powerful faction of the PUK, as well as the Gorran, and KIG.
Moreover, the council indicates that the KRG is at risk of stepping away from a democratic system. A close look at the council shows how Barzani, despite the end of his term two years ago, remains the main decision maker, and the independence of other officials is questionable. Furthermore, the council undermines the role of parliament and other government institutions.
The referendum has changed the KRG political landscape. The KDP has been strengthened through its narrative and drive for the referendum. The referendum will also bring the KDP and PUK closer to each other, helping them form a political alliance that can guarantee them a super majority and the ability to surpass democratic practices. However, as political maneuvering continues, the referendum may also divide further the Kurds in the long run. Independence can be interpreted in many ways, and each party will now be forced to include it on its agenda, but will adapt the rhetoric to fit its purpose.
Sardar Aziz is a senior advisor to the Kurdistan parliament in Iraq. He also consults with a number of European think-tanks. He has a PhD in Governance from University College Cork, Ireland.