Referendum: How and Why

By Hogar Hadi Hasan:

Referenda, from the perspective of political philosophy, are manifestations of direct democracy and since people vote directly they are a clear-cut legitimacy indicator. Very often, though, referenda are swayed by transient impulses rather than by deep and careful analysis and calculation. These very transient whims can be carefully manipulated by demagogues. Referenda are sometimes used as disguises for oppressive policies.

A referendum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) is strictly linked to the idea of self-determination; a referendum in today’s KRI context is used as a tool to manifest and externalize the right of self-determination. However, after a meeting between some Iraqi-Kurdish political parties, many people are very skeptical towards this newly-announced referendum that’s supposed to happen during the coming fall.

People’s legitimate concerns are based on a couple of very clear reasons. First, in January 2005 a vast majority (over 98%) of Iraqi-Kurds voted for secession. Yet, this did not result in secession. In fact, Masoud Barzani the leader of Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in KRI, in an interview with Al-Hayat newspaper in 2004 said, “what we have been fighting for decades now has been realized in federal and democratic Iraq. Now we are confident and happy that the blood of our martyrs has not gone in vain.”

Furthermore, the answer to the question of whether Iraqi Kurds want to secede or not is very clear: 98% percent of Iraqi Kurds want to secede. After the drop in oil prices in 2014 and the sacking of the head of the parliament, from the Gorran (Change) Movement, by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the question is: wouldn’t these issues suggest that a daunting prospect lies ahead and even a ‘No’ vote is possible in this newly announced referendum? What is more disturbing is the fact that the proposed referendum is increasingly monopolized by the KDP’s political rhetoric and its leader Masoud Barzani, which divides the Kurds all the more.

Moreover, why does the KDP refuse to go back to the result of 2005 referendum? Why hold another referendum in the midst of political stagnation and division where there is great risk of a dramatic drop in the ‘Yes’ vote? One reason could be that the KDP and its leader Masoud Barzani favor the prospect of having total hegemony over the referendum and conducting the process under their name so that they can present themselves as the protectors and creators of the Kurdish state to further monopolize politics in this region. And it seems that they don’t really mind if this reckless approach hurts the fate of a nation.

Even though both the newly announced and the 2005 referendum are non-binding, meaning that they both have an advisory nature, the 2005 referendum seems to be the only reasonable choice that is available now. It can be used as a strong leverage with the international community to convince them that Iraqi-Kurds have tried to work with one unified Iraq even against their will but, as we now clearly see, the united Iraq project is no longer intact. And now it’s the Kurds’ right to go back to 2005 referendum result and act upon it. By the same token, in the 2005 referendum Iraqi-Kurds were much united than today, hence the risk of a ‘No’ vote is now way higher. And, more importantly, the 2005 referendum was ‘by the people for the people’ as opposed to the newly announced referendum which is ‘by the KDP (and the PUK in lesser extend) and its leader Masoud Barzani, for the people’.

If Iraqi Kurds are going to hold a referendum this year, there are certain conditions that ought to exist in order for it to be legitimate and successful. First, on a domestic and international level, the will and the desire to hold the referendum should come from the people. In a representative democracy, which theoretically is the political system of KRI, parliament is the institution that manifests the will of the people. According to the Law No.1 Article 1 that was issued by the parliament in 2005, “parliament is the sole and the only legitimate source of legislation regarding the momentous issues.” So, through parliament, the referendum becomes a project from the people to the people. Unfortunately, the newly announced referendum wasn’t issued by parliament, but by Masoud Barzani, who is an acting president from a presidential term that has been expired since August 20th 2015. Internationally, a decision by parliament holds more legal and political value than one by an acting president.

Second, to change the advisory (non-binding) nature of the referendum to a binding nature, parliament has to issue a law. In that law, it should be stated that a ‘Yes’ vote in the referendum will transition into a mandatory decision: declaring independence.

Now, we know the newly announced referendum is highly problematic, yet there are some presumably pragmatic voices that support the newly announced referendum, and they support this unlawful referendum for two reasons. First, they say the timing is very suitable for holding a referendum, because KRI now has lots of leverage against Baghdad, both politically and economically, due to the ISIS war and oil price drop. This view is simply not factually true, not because Baghdad isn’t weak, but because KRI is way weaker. KRI is in the midst of a severe political stagnation and economic crises.

Secondly, they say the intention of this referendum is not to declare independence but rather to use it as leverage against Baghdad. This view is hardly true factually since Masoud Barazni called the prime minster of Iraq Haider al-Abadi and confirmed to him that, “We will respect and work for the integrity and sovereignty of Iraq”. This very phone call terminated the chance of using this referendum as leverage.

KRI now is in desperate need of building strong political and economic institutions and taking up a real fight against the unimaginable levels of corruption, especially in the oil sector. Even though an independent state for the Kurds is an aspiration of most Kurds, holding a referendum at this time and in this way, should be their last concern. Their primary concern must be building economic and political institution alongside radical social reforms. If by any small chance Iraqi-Kurds give birth to an independent state with the existing political and economic structures, and also survived international pressure, it will be a scary totalitarian state. This coming referendum should be stopped and boycotted immediately because both ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ votes could be catastrophic for Iraqi-Kurds.

Hogar Hadi Hasan is a student at AUIS (American University of Iraq-Sulaimani), Department of  International Studies. 

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