Here’s an upcoming event which is receiving relatively little attention in the Western press, despite its potential importance for the politics of the Middle East. On September 25th the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is holding a referendum on independence for its semi-autonomous zone in north-eastern Iraq, one likely to yield a positive result. This vote has major implications not just for the Iraqi Republic but also for neighbouring areas of Iran, Turkey and Syria. Many of these border localities have significant numbers of native Kurds and some believe that the plebiscite will encourage similar votes in the rebellious northern enclaves currently fighting the Assad regime in Damascus.
As for the federal government in Baghdad, it has condemned the planned referendum but is powerless to stop it. Its hopes rest on the perennial inability of Kurdish leaders to move towards sovereign statehood in a coherent manner, favouring factional rivalry with each other rather than agreeing collective goals (while Iraqi Kurdistan is far more stable and prosperous than the rest of the country, corruption has become a major problem, complete with a post-glasnost type or class of domestic “entrepreneur”).
…vote that empowers the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish administration, to negotiate independence. A legally valid referendum is a powerful expression of the popular will — when it has a specific mandate. However, the Sept. 25 referendum lacks this legitimacy, making its impact unclear. Nor will the result force any part of the KRG to act — not the president, the cabinet or the parliament.
Part of the difficulty is that there is no KRG constitution. The Kurdish parliament did vote for a constitution in 2009, but it is not in force because it was never approved by a referendum. The 2009 constitution in theory grants Kurdistan the right to hold a vote in line with a referendum law. However, the Kurdish parliament never passed a referendum law. Nor will it. Parliament stopped functioning in October 2015 following conflict between Masoud Barzani, the president of the KRG and the opposition.
That makes the result on Sept. 25 more a declaration of intent than a credible bid for independence.
…without a constitution and a referendum law, there is no obligation for future governments to do anything.
As if to prove that the popular vote on Sept. 25 is largely a gesture, the KRG seems to have no plan for the day after. For example, there is no proposal to establish an independent currency if the vote calls for independence.
If the KRG acts upon the outcome of the plebiscite then the establishment of a free Kurdistan – in large part – would be entirely possible within the next two or three years. However with in-fighting remaining the dominant political sport in the regional capital of Erbil, there is plenty of reason to doubt that any change is possible. In which case, a Kurdish Spring may be the next item on the agenda among the territory’s growing youthful population.