The Controversial Kurdistan Referendum: The Dirty Game in the Name of National Interest

The referendum destroyed the weak opposition, and the dynamo of the demands for political change. The people’s hope for the democratization of the political system vanished, and now no one talked about it. Finally the case of the Kurdish independence was severely weakened.

The Controversial Kurdistan Referendum: The Dirty Game in the Name of National Interest

Machiavelli (1469-1527): Aprince … in order to maintain the state he is often oliged to act against his promise, against charity, against humanity, and against religion. And therefore, it is necessary that he have a mind ready to turm´n itself according to the way the winds of fortune and the changeability of political affairs require… as lon as its possible, he should not stray from the good, but he should know how to enter into evil when necessity commands.[i]

Morgenthau (1904-1980): The craving for power dictates a search not only for relative advantage but also for secure political space within which to maintain oneself and to enjoy oneself free from the political dictates of others.[ii]

After the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein, both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) employed their own militia forces to impose themselves on the Kurdish community, and the internal war divided the Kurdish territory and created the Yellow and Green Zones. In 2003, with the same wealth-focused mentality, the two parties reached a strategic agreement between themselves, and both parties’ accumulation of power continued to 2013. As the extended presidency of Masoud Barzani neared its end in 2015, the Kurdish community suffered under authoritarian rule characterized by the rulers’ high levels of nepotism, discrimination, and corruption. A serious demand emerged for the end of Barzani’s presidency and, at the same time, for a change in the political system. This was a direct violation of the Barzani family’s red line. The family had sacrificed thousands of lives for its own interests during the internal war of the 1990s, and now its power was under real threat. The removal of Masoud Barzani as president and a change in the political system that would strengthen the parliament and weaken the president signaled, in fact, a potential blow to its dominance and power in every respect. The family had protected its domination for decades, but now its interests and power were in danger, and it faced an uncertain future. It had to find a way out, focus on the family’s vital interests, devise a tactical move, and avert the prospect of systemic change to preserve its multiple interests. A referendum was the rescue card that could change the agenda. Thus, the family shut down the legislative assembly and imposed the referendum in the name of the national interest. It is worth mentioning that the Barzani family had arrogantly ignored the referendum held by the people in 2005.

When facing political and economic crises and a demand for political change, political parties usually seek a political compromise rather than closing the Parliament and evading the main questions by imposing a referendum on the people’s destiny while the key conditions are ignored.

In order to protect its private interests, the family had not hesitated in the past to seek help from the Iranian, Turkish, and Iraqi armies, so why should it give up its domination now? Why accede to a political change that could remove it from power? The family had never made such a concession before, so why they would it do so now? How could it sacrifice its own interests for the sake of democratization? Thus, it stood against systemic change and acted with determination, moving to consolidate the separation between the two ruling parties and to strengthen the border between the Yellow and Green Zones.

The family highlighted the controversial referendum, and the expired president led the matter. The weak political parties that usually obeyed them approved the referendum without any criticism or resistance.

With the vital concerns absent from the referendum and with Kurdish friends advising against holding the referendum, it finally became clear that the referendum would not succeed, but the Barzani family stubbornly insisted on the referendum and refused to hear, see, or listen to any disagreement. It was quite aware of what it was doing. It was perfectly familiar with the constitutional and other bilateral agreements between Kurdistan and Baghdad, but it pursued its own strategic aim without hesitation because the referendum actually represented a denial of the political and economic crises and a refusal to relinquish family rule.

The Barzani family was well aware that the referendum on independence (25 September 2017) was playing on the people’s national sense and that they were misleading the people, but the people’s wishes had no value compared to the interests of the family, for whom the end justified the means. As expected, threats from Iraq, Turkey, and Iran arose after the controversial referendum, which neither the United Nations (UN) nor the Western countries had supported. The expired leader did not care about other countries’ negative reactions and did not have a plan; Masoud Barzani, who had promised to sacrifice himself for the issue, was not visible. In reality, he was waiting and looking toward the goal. After only three weeks, the Barzani and Talabani families approached the Iraqi government with concessions and decided to withdraw the Peshmerga forces to the 2003 line, giving Baghdad control over the border points and oil fields. This was done in a chaotic way, and hundreds of Peshmerga and civilians were killed by the Iraqi army and the militia of Hashd al-Shaabi. While the KDP’s media pushed for a fight in Kirkuk through propaganda news stories, the Talabani family sold and surrendered Kirkuk to the Iraqi forces.

The Iraqi prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, had said one year before the referendum that they (Iraqi leaders) were in agreement with the Kurdish leaders and that the Peshmerga forces should withdraw to the 2003 line. That was in agreement with the facts and with the deals between the Kurds and the Iraqi government according to the constitution under the United State (US) observation. In fact, the Kurds had the ability to keep the border areas under their control only if the US supported them, but the US never showed any support in this regard. The Barzani and Talabani families never told the truth to the Kurdish people, instead accusing each other of betrayal. In fact, they had both betrayed the Kurdish people once again.

How did the Barzani family exploit the referendum for its own benefit? The referendum destroyed the weak opposition, and the Change Movement, which had been the dynamo of the demands for change, was now participating in the government with the Barzani family. The PUK, which had suffered under the internal conflict, was also participating in the government as the second largest political party, maintaining its own militia forces and exercising control over the Green Zone. The people’s hope for the democratization of the political system vanished, and now no one talked about it. Finally the case of the Kurdish independence was severely weakened.

The absence of freedom, a boycott by an angry populace, and the usual election fraud made it possible for the KDP to win the 2018 election and become stronger than ever. Now, the Barzani family can pursue its private interests much more easily than before. The PUK now has control over the Green Zone again, so the rivalry between them is as strong as before 2003. The strengthening of the two families’ regimes is in the interests of the Barzani family, which has all the wealth and power it needs. Now, the Barzani family occupies all the highest posts in Iraqi Kurdistan, and it also wants the post of Iraqi president and other important posts at the Iraqi level.

Masoud Barzani resigned only under US pressure, but he is still the primary leader, with power and authority. His son Masrur Barzani is the prime minister and his nephew Nechirvan Barzani is the regional president. If Masoud Barzani was in the least loyal to his own promises made before the referendum, he would at least leave politics, but it seems on the contrary that he has lost nothing, and, in fact, he and his family are the winner as their powers and interests are safe for the time being. Who cares what the Kurdish people lost in this dirty game?

By Shakhawan Shorsh


[i] Jackson and Sørensen (1999):Introduction to International Relations, p. 70.

[ii] Jackson and Sørensen (1999):Introduction to International Relations, p. 76.