In the face of opposition from all of its neighbours, the EU and the USA, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) held a referendum on independence on Monday 25th September. The plebiscite was held in the Kurdistan Region, and in adjoining areas under the military control of Kurdish Peshmerga forces, but which the Iraqi central government disputes as not belonging to Kurdistan.
The official results are expected to be declared on Thursday 28th September, and according to the government’s statistics, out of 4 589 000 electors who were registered to vote, there was a 77.83% turnout and 3 589 000 actually voted.
The forecast is that the final result will show that there was an overwhelming vote in favour of “Yes” to independence (91%) with 3 159 000 votes, against 281000 who voted “No” (9%).
The result of the referendum is advisory in nature, but reactions from Kurdistan’s neighbours Iraq, Iran and Turkey have been hostile. Turkey and Iraq were holding joint military exercises in South-Eastern Turkey, on referendum day near the border with Iraq. Iraqi President Haider al-Abadi has said that he would not discuss the referendum result because the vote had been “unconstitutional”.
Turkey’s president Erdogan has threatened economic sanctions or military intervention against Kurdistan, in his usual over the top highly charged rhetoric probably aimed more at his nationalist domestic audience, but nonetheless underscoring the concerns that an independent Kurdistan might lead to separatist sentiments in Turkey’s Kurdish minority.
Iran has banned direct flights to and from Kurdistan; they also have a Kurdish minority. The country is uneasy that the only state to recognise the Kurdistan referendum is their arch enemy Israel.
But the “yes” vote in Kurdistan will not automatically trigger a declaration of independence; this is expected to give Kurdish leaders a mandate to start negotiations with the central Iraqi government in Baghdad and with neighbouring countries. It is clear that they still continue to have a strong partnership with Iraq in the international coalition that is fighting against IS, but the Kurds want to discuss their historical grievances with Baghdad. Kurdistan is keen to reassure the international community, that they are committed to a process of dialogue with Baghdad, not confrontation.
The EU, which itself faces a controversial referendum in Catalonia on 1st October, and the USA now both need to take stock of their positions and reflect how they can respect the will of the 3.5 million people who voted “Yes” in the Kurdistan referendum. As the bastions of democracy, and protectors of democratic values and human rights in the free world, both blocs need to find a solution that respects the outcome of this peaceful and democratic referendum and the Kurdish people’s right of self-determination.
“The vote is the start of a process of talks and not a declaration of war,” said the Head of Mission in Brussels for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Mr Delavar Ajgeiy. “ Over the past 25 years, the Kurdistan Region has proven that we are a positive force for stability. Baghdad should begin serious dialogue with Erbil to resolve our outstanding problems. Nobody should blame our people for the referendum. It is our right.”
Diplomatic efforts will be needed if the USA and the EU are to discourage Kurdish President Massoud Barzani from declaring independence, and their combined efforts are essential if Baghdad and Erbil are to be successfully brought together to the conference table to strike a deal that should respect the interests of both Kurdistan and Iraq.