Keynote Speech Dilshad Khidhir - fhe

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Keynote Speech Dilshad Khidhir


The Kurdistan Referendum on Independence at the crossroads of Kurdish
national identity
Dilshad H. Khidhir
While mainstream theories of nationalism offer competing views on the process towards
statehood, the Kurdish case may be considered a stark example of the role played by a solid
national identity as a pre-condition to achieving statehood. Despite the fact that the Kurdistan
Referendum on Independence was not well situated in the geopolitics of the Middle East as of
September 2017, the internal, factor, mainly manifested itself in the deeply fragmented
Kurdish political identity in the Kurdistan Region, may be counted as a major factor that
insured the failure of the long-awaited referendum on independence.
To address the failed Kurdistan referendum from a different yet, largely understudied
dimension, this paper attempts to examine the process through, first, competing discourses of
the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ referendum campaigns of the Kurdistan Referendum held on 25
September 2017, and second, the political and military developments in the aftermath of the
referendum. This paper attempts to demonstrate that the lack of a unified national identity in
the Kurdistan Region was a key factor behind the failure of the referendum. Another critical
argument which is offered in this paper is that, what triggered the failure of the referendum
was not the public manifestation of the fragmented identity so much as it was the political
manifestation of it. This may be demonstrated by the fact that while the ‘Yes’ campaign was,
reportedly, able to win with an overwhelming majority of %93, this statistical result failed to
translate into a political will to push for statehood. The main reason behind this failure was
the untimely fragmented political identity in the Kurdistan Region at a crucial point in the
history of this region.
With a country of just over five million population, at the heat of the referendum, the political
discourse was largely fragmented. A part from the divisions addressing the referendum
agenda per-se, i.e. the Yes and No fronts, Kurdistan society was already deeply fragmented
over competing political lines, the most significant were authority vs. opposition, Islamist vs.
secularist, localist vs. pan-Kurdist. Meanwhile, the main division in relation to the referendum
was the Yes and No sides of the debate. Notwithstanding, the stunning result of the divided
societal scene in the Kurdistan Region during the referendum was the overwhelming victory
of the Yes vote vis-à-vis the No one. Arguably, the societal division did harm the public
relations part of the Yes campaign, both internally and mostly, externally. For, the main
argument of the No campaign involved criticism of the widespread corruption in the country
and the incompetency of the leading figures of the Yes campaign, including the then President
of the Kurdistan Region Masoud Barzani, in perusing such a significant and historic national
goal (independence).
It seems the major blow suffered by the supporters of the Kurdistan independence did not
come from ordinary voters. In fact, it seems average Kurdish citizens put aside all their
grievances against the ruling parties and the government and opted instead for independence
for the region. The main blow, I would like to argue, came from the political division before,
during and after the referendum. Apart from the KDP which was the main mobilizing party
behind the referendum, the two other major political parties, the Kurdistan Patriotic Union
(PUK), and the Change Movement (Gorran), did not have a unified and self-declared position
on an issue that was existential to the region (the referendum). The PUK was divided along its
common factional lines, some aligned themselves to the Yes and the other aligned themselves
to the No campaign. In fact, Gorran had a more ambiguous position towards referendum with
their media concentrating on the incompetency of the leaders of the Yes campaign and the
failure of the ‘Kurdish authority’ in their long self-rule history while their leadership had the
last-minute U-turn in support of the Yes campaign.

As stated before, despite the serious division at home, the Yes campaign won the ballot battle
in the referendum. However, this did not guarantee the political and the real victory of the Yes
campaign. Apart from the fierce opposition to the referendum from Baghdad and the
neighboring Turkey, Iran and even Syria, the main blow to the referendum hit from within the
Kurdish house. The leading figures of the Yes campaign or the Pro-independence leadership
mainly represented by Masoud Barzani and the then prime minister, Nechirvan Barzani had
openly declared that the referendum would not necessarily lead to the declaration of
independence. However, before they make any decisions on their position after the victory of
their Yes campaign, and as the political, economic and security pressures were mounting from
all four sides, the major blow to the referendum resulted from the so-called October 16
incident. The incident, which has been labeled differently by different parties of the
controversy, resulted in the withdrawal of the Kurdish Peshmerga from large parts of land
under their control in the so-called ‘disputed territories’. Despite the fact that the massive loss
of land did not happen as a result of any significant war between the Iraqi army, aided by the
Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al-Shaa’bi), and the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, in
essence this was a military defeat of the Kurds vis-à-vis the central government in Baghdad
and it was so interpreted by many. After the Kurdish forces suffered this major blow, the Yes
campaign leadership was forced to declare the freezing of the referendum results, which in
fact, so far, this was no more than the declaration of the end of the road for the whole process
of the Kurdistan Referendum on Independence.
The crux of the argument here is that, the failure of the Kurdish political parties in
consolidating a solid and unified political discourse hence, a unified will, coupled with
external opposition to the move sanctioned the long-awaited referendum on independence
with a devastating failure. Another equally important argument to make here is that the
Kurdish political parties not only failed the long-awaited dream of achieving independence in
this part of the Kurdish land, they did fail the Kurdish public by failing to translate the public
will, represented in the overwhelming victory of the Yes vote, into a reality.

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