Amsterdam Centre for Middle Eastern Studies

Kurdistan Referendum: to be or not to be?

A report of the ACMES Round Table discussion

23 October 2017

On 25 September, the Iraqi Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of their independence from Iraq in a historic referendum. From the 3 million voters, 92% voted ‘yes’ to the question whether the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan should be separated from Iraq. This referendum, however, raised many questions. An expert panel, consisting of Joost Hiltermann, Mariwan Kanie, and Ugur Üngör, addressed a number of these questions in an ACMES Roundtable Discussion on 28 September. ACMES intern Lenneke Kraak wrote a report on this discussion.

How strong is the independence wish in Iraqi Kurdistan? What are the opportunities for establishing a Kurdish state in Iraq? What can we expect from the regional powers like Iran and Turkey? What are the consequences for political stability in the region? What are the views from Washington and the international community? The discussants looked into these questions and more in their treatment of the issue.

Mariwan Kanie, a lecturer in Arabic Studies at the UvA, kicked off the discussion. As he was opposed to the referendum, he did not cast a vote. His opposition to the referendum, he related, has not made himself very popular among other Kurds. According to Kanie (and others), the Kurdistan region is problematic because of its isolation and abuses of power and wealth, rendering it not stable enough for independence. Additionally, he stated, President Massoud Barzani called for this referendum partly in order to prolong his personal and familial control. According to Kanie, Barzani is the man behind the change in discourse and political climate in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The second speaker was Ugur Üngör, associate professor at the Department of History at Utrecht University and Research Fellow at the Institute for War, Holocaust, and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam. The first aspect he highlighted in his presentation, was the concept of referenda itself. He showed that when the results of recent referenda are recalculated to turnout, the result is actually not necessarily endorsed by the majority of the registered voters. His primary argument was that a referendum is an ambivalent measure for political matters. Furthermore, Üngör discussed the Turkish and Iranian responses to the referendum, referring to the assets and risks of Kurdish independence. Thirdly, he touched upon the fate of Kurdish democracy and ‘politicide’, the destruction of all political entities in Iraqi Kurdistan. The real Kurdish issue, he argued, is about the borders: the nation-state system is not implemented, because borders are placed straight through tribe-areas, which makes the formation of a Kurdish nation-state problematic.

Joost Hiltermann, Program Director of the MENA Program of the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Brussels, agreed with Üngör, stating that the challenge for the Kurds is their division in four large parts in different countries. These ‘host countries’ keep the minority Kurdish parts weak on purpose for their own benefit. Hiltermann also addressed the Kurds employ to substantiate their claims of independence towards the international community. On one hand they use the argument of sympathy, arguing that they have been victims of genocide and warfare since the 1980s and therefore deserve independence. The other side of the sympathy argument is that Iraqi Kurdistan claims to be ‘the other Iraq’, the democratic part, deserving of independence on that account. Thirdly, they use the argument of utility, as they are strategically located as both an oil provider and a possible buffer in the fight against IS.

After the three speakers finished their mini-lectures, there was ample room for questions and discussion between the scholars themselves and the scholars and the audience. As the turnout for this round table discussion was very diverse, with students from many different bachelors and master’s programs to Dutch Kurds to reporters, this made for a lively discussion that continued well into the after-lecture drinks.

By Lenneke Kraak

Published by  ACMES