The repercussions of the Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum

Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani appears to have overreached in holding a referendum on independence, although almost 93% voted for it. Major powers support Iraq's territorial integrity. The Iraqi government has asserted military control over the region with Iran's help. Facing political and economic isolation, the Kurdistan Regional Government's authority and cohesion has been weakened. Barzani's futility has likely hardened the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK)'s position in Turkey and increased its regional freedom of action.

The failed attempt by Masoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdistan Region of Iraq, to gain full sovereignty for the region following the independence referendum held on 25 September 2017 has not only punctured Kurdish dreams of imminent statehood, but also arguably left the region in its weakest position since before the 1991 Gulf War. It has also given a major boost to both Iraq’s central government under Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and his ally Iran.

Background: a house divided

Although all of the main political factions in the Kurdistan Region are committed to Kurdish independence in principle, Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which dominates most of the region’s governmental institutions, took the decision to hold the referendum unilaterally, and announced their plans in June 2017. To avoid accusations that it was betraying Kurdish nationalism, the KDP’s traditional political rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), grudgingly supported the referendum. But the third main force in Iraqi Kurdistan’s politics, the Movement for Change, also known as Gorran – a reform-based party that broke away from the PUK in 2009 – refused to do so. Gorran had already severely criticised what it saw as Barzani’s illegal retention of the presidency: in August 2015, Barzani refused to step down when his term officially expired, citing a decision by a KDP-dominated government body known as the Kurdistan Consultative Council that he could remain in office. Gorran subsequently boycotted the Kurdistan Parliament, in which it has the second-largest number of seats after the KDP. As a result, for the next two years the assembly was unable to reach the quorum necessary to pass legislation. Gorran also boycotted a parliamentary session held on 15 September 2017, at which 68 of the assembly’s 111 members nonetheless approved a motion to hold the independence referendum.

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