On the 19th May 1992, the first election took place in Kurdistan for its regional government. Kurdistan’s neighbours intervened, trying to argue that their populations would be affected by such a move, that the likely outcome was instability for the whole of the Middle East, and that the move represented an illegal break up of Iraq.
For the most part, they made those arguments thinking about their own Kurdish populations, assuming that if those saw another country’s Kurds succeeding in any step towards self-governance, all of them would demand the same.
It was a fear born out of long standing conflicts between countries such as Turkey and their minority Kurdish populations, out of the natural fear of nation states about any loss of power, and even out of the example that might be set, having an emergent democracy in a region too often characterised by absolute monarchs and sham parliaments.
If all of this seems familiar, it is because something very similar is playing out today, as Kurdistan moves towards its independence referendum. Baghdad has sought to declare it illegal. Its neighbours have claimed that it will be disruptive and damaging, inflaming tensions in the Middle East at a time when conflict already affects many areas. Even some members of the international community have suggested that they might not recognise the results.
The reasons remain the same. Turkey and Iran want to avoid giving hope to their Kurdish minorities. The international community values stability and oil above the freedom and self determination its prominent members espouse for themselves. It seems like a near perfect mirror to the events of the past.
The argument here though is simple: Kurdistan’s elections in 1992 didn’t cause the whole of the Middle East to collapse. They didn’t create the instability in other nations that people feared. Yes, difficulties followed within Kurdistan, but none of the predictions made by its neighbours came to pass. Is there any reason why the referendum should live up to them, when the elections did not? Every general election in Kurdistan from 1992 onwards proceeded on time, and there seems to be no reason why the referendum should not.
If that moment doesn’t seem like a suitable point of comparison, let us look at another moment that has even closer similarities. In 2005, a referendum poll within Kurdistan found 98.8% of those voting to be in favour of an independent Kurdish state. It was ignored and shouted down by those outside Kurdistan, but it does raise some interesting questions for the current poll. Specifically, how should we react to any result that isn’t as overwhelming this time? Would it represent a failure of the referendum, and a falling away of support for independence?
The short answer is no:
The 2005 poll was opposed in a number of quarters, and may not have been methodologically perfect, with the result that the respondents were self-selecting. To put it another way, in 2005, those people who didn’t want independence were more likely not to vote than to vote against it. The circumstances were also different, with more recent experience of having been in conflict with the south of Iraq. Things are more settled in Kurdistan now, and at least some people will vote against independence simply in favour of an idea of stability, even if that doesn’t match up with everything Kurdistan has experienced in recent years.
A closer vote, in those terms, wouldn’t represent a failure of the independence project in Kurdistan, but the success of its democratic process, allowing for a multiplicity of views within its society, and for real debate on the most fundamental issues surrounding the region. If anything, a somewhat closer vote might be preferable, because it would reinforce the fact that this is a free, open, fair referendum, where those with dissenting voices are able to make themselves heard. It would legitimise the result further, and will lend weight to whatever decision the population of Kurdistan makes.
As for the immediate aftereffects of the decision, a number of nations surrounding Kurdistan have issued warnings that they will close their borders, including Turkey and Iran. They claim that independence would be a destabilising force. Perhaps Turkey is forgetting the role the Kurdistan Regional Government played in brokering peace in Turkey’s conflict with the PKK. Perhaps both nations are forgetting the economic and security benefits that close relations with the KRG have already brought to them, and to Kurdistan.
It seems likely that they will remember in time. Closed borders are rarely a recipe for good relations, and will do little to change things within Kurdistan. In the meantime, if the lessons of the past are anything to go by, Kurdistan will proceed with its referendum on schedule, and the world will not fall apart as a result. Instead, it seems likely that the only outcome is Kurdistan moving forward with the project to produce a democratic, free nation that the KRG has been involved in since its inception.
By Irfan Azeez Azeez
Irfan Azeez holds a Masters in Law in arbitration and alternative dispute resolution from Kingston University and is currently working on his PhD