North Africa, West Asia

Iraq’s Kurdistan government needs a public debate on independence

To win the argument and battle for the Kurdistan state, it is more important to win the support of the Kurdish people than to win the consent of the superpowers.

Dara Salam
18 November 2016

Massoud Barzani, president of the Iraqi self-ruled Kurdish region speaks during a conference in Baghdad, Iraq, Sept. 29, 2016.Hadi Mizban/Press Association. All rights reserved.Many Kurds are convinced that to right the wrongs done to them throughout their history of political oppression and partition they must rule themselves and, to go further, claim statehood. They have always been subject to political suppression and assimilation. They suffered great injustice at the hands of the states such as Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria, each of whom has practised authoritarian policies against the Kurdish population and treated them as inferior citizens.

They were never granted real political or cultural rights. In fact, the Kurdish nationalist movements have been minimalist in their demands and they, hardly expressed this political will to form a state of their own. In most cases, they restricted their demands to calls for self-determination or political and cultural autonomy within these states, but they never called for secession. Current developments under way in the Middle East have prompted the Kurds in Rojava (northern Syria) and in Turkey to adopt a different political vision and demand the project of democratic confederalism within the current states.

The Kurds in Iraq, however, are more inclined to call for independence, a demand that once appeared only a gleam in the eyes of the Kurdish movement. So, what has changed in the last few years? And what are the necessary steps to achieve this project and the problems that surround it?     

After the second Gulf War in 1991, the Kurdistan region in Iraq (KRI) achieved, after much struggle and sacrifice, semi-autonomous status from the then Saddam government, whose forces suffered a heavy blow at the hands of the US and coalition forces. Since then, the Kurds have been able to govern the region and establish various institutions including the formation of legislative and executive powers. The Kurdistan region was able to secure greater economic independence when oil was discovered and it became a thriving part of the economy and the major source of the revenue. The region’s greater political independence took a firmer foot after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, when Kurds were able to bring their de facto government to a de jure political entity.

This was formally recognised in the Iraqi constitution of 2005 based reluctantly on a new federal system. The discovery of its own oil, being able to keep the region secure and having a share in Iraq’s oil wealth has contributed to the economic prosperity of the Kurdistan region and the rise of the purchasing power in the region. However, relations between the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) and the central government in Baghdad turned sour, when Baghdad declared that it did not recognise the contracts signed between the KRG and foreign oil firms. It demanded that the KRG should send all its oil revenues back to the central government. This row turned political and resulted in the cutting of Kurdistan’s share of Iraq’s oil revenues. The KRG has since decided to export its own oil. In a political shift of powers in Iraq in June 2014, when ISIS forces captured Mosul and the Iraqi army deserted most of the disputed territories of Kurdistan, the Kurdish Peshmerga, as a result, defended these territories. Consequently, Masoud Barzani, the then president of the Kurdistan region, declared that the Kurds will hold a referendum on the prospects of their independence from Iraq.

It is clear that the Kurds are not trying to create their own state through a bloody conflict and do not wish to repeat the bloody experience of the Balkan countries. However, one of the daunting problems that undermines the KRG’s efforts for any referendum on independence is its lack of preparation on this matter through a proper public debate, its unilateral partisan race, and its unsuccessful political administration which has caused many economic and political crises on the other.

The fact that the Iraqi government is a dysfunctional one and is ruled by a sectarian mentality that has dragged the country into a sectarian war should be enough reason not to replicate such a form of government. It should give incentives to create a more functional government that guarantees public scrutiny and eliminates corruption at various levels. The current KRG has created a series of scandals starting from its opaque policy towards the oil industry and inability to meet deadlines for paying wages, as well as causing a political stalemate by halting the function of the legislative chamber through a nondemocratic and partisan move.

For the last two decades, not only has this government failed to take steps to end the grip of the political parties on the government, but it has remained under the influence of and driven by the dominant political parties.

Now the call for independence is led by Masoud Barzani and his party, KDP, but he is strikingly out of touch with the public and even with his own party sympathisers. There are no clear lines of argument about the costs and benefits of separation, the economic potential and downturns and, most importantly, about how democratic and inclusive this new state would be.

This feeling of being excluded and the lack of clarity as to what is being created has added to a sense of scepticism among the public in the Kurdistan region with regard to the creation of a Kurdistan state. As the call for independence is a unilateral partisan move on the part of the KDP, other parties suspect that it is mainly a rescue plan for its leader whose presidency term for the Kurdistan region has ended. This step would install him as the president of the Kurdistan state.

To eradicate these doubts, the following steps are of paramount importance to realise the project of independence and to turn it from a political manoeuvre to a political reality. First, all political parties in Kurdistan must come together and work out a common plan including a time limit for the referendum and setting out a manifesto and presenting it for public debate and consultation.

The foundations of any legitimate state lie, in large part, in the support given by its people and its democratic governance. The reason that it should be the Kurdistan state and not the Kurdish state is that this new state’s principle of citizenship should be as inclusive as possible to include all ethnic and religious components, like Arabs, Turkomans, Kildo-Assyrians, Christians, Yazidis, Shia, Sunni and others.

Second, the parliament should be reinstated so that it forms relevant committees to organise the referendum. Once the referendum is successfully completed in favour of independence, a constitutional assembly must be elected to carry out the task of writing the new constitution.

Third, if Barzani wants to follow in the footsteps of great leaders who led their nations to independence, like Ghandi, Mandela and others, he should not cling to the seat of power.  Instead, he must affirm his commitment to the founding of the first democratic state of Kurdistan that could be an inspiration for other nations in the Middle East. The current government should be dissolved, partly because it has put the economy into massive debt and is far too much involved in the business of party politics.

Fourth, Barzani must act as a national leader and should not engage in a politics of polarisation that will cripple the possibility for collective efforts to bring a dream of independence to reality. If the Kurdistan state comes to fruition, he will be the first to reap it as he has championed it and, for that reason, he must come out to people and be more in touch with them. He should courageously implement the practical solutions to overcome the current political and economic impasse.

Fifth, he must personally get involved in making the oil sector much more transparent by authorising the parliamentary committees that establish a system of checks. This is the only way to overcome the current economic impasse. However, oil should not be the only and sole source of the newly established state’s GDP. It is very important that the new government thinks about other renewable sources of energy and concentrates on revitalising agriculture, manufacturing and tourism for its new economy.

To win the argument and battle for the Kurdistan state, it is more important to win the support of the Kurdish people than to win the consent of the superpowers. It is imperative then to pinpoint the problems that crush the hopes for democratic governance and which obstruct the formation of a popular consensus for independence. A national debate in which we can all participate, one that is not contorted by writers of apologetics and politicians, is urgently needed to solve the issues facing the country and unify the efforts for the declaration of independence.

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