Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

A Future for Kurdish Independence?

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

A Future for Kurdish Independence?

Article excerpt

The Kurdish independence referendum of September 25, 2017, has proven thus far to be an ill-conceived high-risk gamble. For while more than 92 percent of voters supported Kurdistan's independence, the harsh reaction by the Iraqi, Iranian, and Turkish governments, coupled with the near-total lack of international support for the move, dealt the referendum's result a mortal blow and drove Masoud Barzani, longtime president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, to resign his post.1

How did this come to pass? Why did the KRG abandon its careful balancing act between the desire to realize the unique opportunity for statehood generated by the overthrow of the Saddam regime and the adamant opposition to this move by the current Baghdad government and Iraq's neighbors? And can the Kurdish national movement recover from this major setback?2

A Divided Political Scene

There have been many calls for a referendum on Kurdistan's independence in recent years-mostly during crises between the KRG and the Iraqi government or when Iraq's territorial integrity seemed to hang in the balance. In July 2014, for example, the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of the offensive in Kurdistan by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the central government and the KRG were embroiled in a prolonged stalemate about the province's oil exports. Barzani then declared Kurdish intentions to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence. In November 2015, a referendum committee was established, which also examined autonomy and independence movements in places such as Scotland, Catalonia, and Quebec.

The debate about the referendum sharpened the deep tribal schisms and bitter rivalries between the two main nationalist forces within Iraq's Kurdish community-the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), founded in 1946 under the leadership of Mullah Mustafa Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), created in 1975 by Jalal Talabani.

In the aftermath of the 1991 Kuwait war, with the founding of the autonomous Kurdistan region, the rivalry between the KDP and PUK escalated, culminating with a bloody civil war in 1994-98. This led to Kurdistan's partition into two regions with separate governments, administrations, military forces, and security agencies, each dominated by the respective parties. The dialogue initiated in 2002 between Masoud Barzani (Mullah Mustafa's son and successor) and Talabani led to the Kurdistan Regional Governmental Unification Agreement at the beginning of 2006. This laid the foundations for the unified autonomous Kurdistan region and enabled the two parties to dominate the KRG and its organs, including the Peshmerga forces, with each party retaining influence over the units drawn from areas traditionally under its control.

In 2009, a group of PUK secessionists led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, formed a new party, Gorran (Change). Its demands included budgetary transparency; an end to political party intervention in the Kurdish armed forces; genuine democratization; elimination of rampant corruption, nepotism, factionalism, and inefficiency in the KRG administration as well as full unification of the two Kurdish zones.

Gorran achieved surprising success in the 2009 elections, largely due to Mustafa's reputation of unblemished honesty and incorruptibility, winning 25 of the 111 seats in the Kurdish parliament and achieving a majority in a traditional PUK stronghold, the city of Sulaimaniya. In the 2013 elections, Gorran's 24 seats made it the second largest Kurdish party after the KDP (38 seats) and ahead of the PUK (18 seats). These achievements have changed the nature of the Kurdish political scene in Iraq from a two-party system into a triangular one. The remaining seats were won by three Islamist parties (17 seats) and by national minority factions: Assyrians, 5; Turkmens, 5; leftist parties, 2; Kurdistan Communist Party, 1; and Armenian, 1.3

Gorran draws its support from the growing, young, educated, urban middle class and reflects the changes in Kurdish society following rapid urbanization, the expansion of higher education, and changes in traditional employment patterns. …

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