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Feb 17, 2016 | 09:16 GMT

8 mins read

Capitalizing on the Kurds

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech in Ankara on Jan. 20.
(ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan are preparing to hold two important referendums that could each impact the fate of the region's Kurds, albeit in very different ways. In Ankara, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is trying to gather more power under the presidency in the name of addressing the threat posed by Turkey's unruly Kurdish minority. In Arbil, Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani is hoping to renew his electoral mandate by reviving the issue of Kurdish independence.

The two presidents' primary goal is to use the popular votes to consolidate their own power bases at a time when both are struggling to contain dissent. But if they are not careful, they could upset the delicate relationship that Ankara and Arbil have worked so hard to establish.

In late 2009, Erdogan began to seek closer diplomatic ties to the KRG as part of his broader strategy for solving Turkey's domestic Kurdish problem. In exchange for greater leeway in striking against Kurdish militants in Iraqi Kurdistan, Erdogan started to encourage Turkish investment into the region and allowed Kurdish energy exports to flow through Turkey. The new relationship also created opportunities for Turkish construction and energy firms in northern Iraq. 

Though both sides benefit from close ties with each other, their relationship is nevertheless fragile. Turkey has an interest in empowering Arbil, but only to the extent of pulling it further from Baghdad's — and by extension, Iran's — grasp. Because of its own restive Kurdish minority, Ankara remains wary of the idea of an independent Kurdish state.

Erdogan Capitalizes on the Kurdish Threat

For Erdogan, the threat posed by Turkey's domestic Kurdish movement also presents an opportunity to garner support for an unpopular initiative. The Turkish president has long pushed for the country to replace its parliamentary system with a presidential one, a proposal that has elicited strong protest from Erdogan's opponents. While most of Turkey's political parties support the idea of creating a new constitution, few outside of Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) have backed his call for an executive presidency. In fact, even the AKP itself is divided over the matter; several party officials, including Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, have threatened to leave the AKP to form their own party because of it. Many fear that the creation of an executive presidency, which would give the president the ability to dissolve parliament, appoint ministers and veto laws, would grant Erdogan too much power.

Without sufficient backing from Turkey's lawmakers, Erdogan has had to turn to the Turkish people to push his initiative through. To this end, he has begun to court the nationalist vote by capitalizing on Turkish antagonism toward the country's Kurdish minority. Indeed, Erdogan's increasingly aggressive policies toward Kurdish political organizations in Turkey are designed to secure nationalists' support by demonstrating the importance of having a strong central presidency to quash potential sources of unrest. Under his rule, Turkish authorities have conducted a number of political and legal probes into Kurdish leaders.

Ironically, during its first few years in power, the AKP relied heavily on the Kurdish vote for its supermajority in the Turkish parliament.

Meanwhile, Erdogan has also hardened his approach toward Kurdish militant groups such as the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), a move that has ratcheted up the civilian death toll in clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants. The president recently suggested that a dozen mayors from predominantly Kurdish areas handle their militancy problems more aggressively, using means outside the legal bounds. He also proposed that local Kurdish officials receive smaller budgets administered more heavily by Ankara. At the same time, Erdogan has sought to enhance his control over Turkey's Kurdish areas by enacting harsher security measures, including extensive curfews, which have heightened discontent among the Kurdish population.

Ironically, during its first few years in power, the AKP relied heavily on the Kurdish vote for its supermajority in the Turkish parliament. (After all, Kurds make up between 10 and 20 percent of Turkey's total population.) To secure that support, the party backed the PKK peace process and put forth proposals to promote cultural development and self-governance among the Kurds. However, as the fight against the Islamic State flared up in Syria and Iraq, Ankara became threatened by the rise of Kurdish militant and separatist activity beyond its borders. Its resulting policies toward the Kurds in both countries damaged the AKP's image among Turkey's own Kurds. Though the ruling party tried to court both Kurdish and nationalist voters ahead of Turkey's June 2015 election, it was unsuccessful. Now, as Erdogan focuses his attention on the nationalists in the lead-up to the constitutional referendum, the political, legal and security pressures on Turkey's Kurds will mount.

Barzani Taps Into the Independence Movement

Elsewhere in the region, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan is also leaning heavily on the Kurdish population to consolidate his power. However, he is doing so in a very different way: by calling for a referendum on Kurdish independence.

Amid worsening political and economic crises in Iraqi Kurdistan, Barzani is facing a growing threat to his legitimacy as the region's ruler. He has held the presidency for more than a decade, but now Barzani has little legal basis for his position. He was last elected in 2009, to a term that was slated to end in 2013. However, security concerns prevented the KRG from holding elections that year, resulting in a two-year extension of Barzani's presidency that was meant to end in August. But Barzani has since refused to step down.

The president's unwillingness to give up his post has been one of the greatest obstacles to solving the KRG's protracted political dispute. Gorran, the second-largest party in the Kurdish parliament, responded to it (and corruption allegations) by mobilizing its supporters against the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party in October 2015. The demonstrations turned violent when some of the ruling party's offices were set on fire, killing five people. The ruling party in turn expelled four of Gorran's ministers and blocked the parliamentary speaker from entering Arbil. Barzani has tried to mend the rift by proposing numerous rounds of political talks, but the opposition — including Gorran — has continuously boycotted them.

The KRG's financial troubles are only exacerbating its political problems. Low oil prices have forced the government to cut salaries by as much as 75 percent, and many employees' paychecks have been delayed. Protests have emerged, not just in opposition-held areas but also in the ruling party's traditional political bases, including Arbil. As the region grows increasingly disenchanted with Barzani's rule, an independence referendum may be one of the few tools the president has left to garner support and temper political divisions.

Gains at Home Carry Risks Abroad

Both of these referendums are aimed at domestic audiences, but each could have repercussions beyond the Turkish and Kurdish borders. For the KRG, the establishment of an executive presidential system in Turkey may become cause for concern, especially if it were to enable Erdogan to take more aggressive action against Kurdish militant groups in the region. If Turkey expands its security footprint farther into Kurdish territory than the KRG deems appropriate, it could damage ties between Ankara and Arbil.

Turkey, for its part, would be wary of an independent Kurdish state forming just south of its border, particularly as it struggles to contain its own Kurdish insurgency. Ankara would be especially concerned if a Kurdish government ruled by Gorran or another opposition party were to emerge, since such a government would likely have greater tolerance and support for the PKK while restricting Turkish operations against the militant group.

That said, immediate independence is an unrealistic goal for the KRG; Barzani himself has cautioned that the referendum is not intended to lead to a declaration of independence right away. Instead, the referendum will likely take the form of the KRG's 2005 independence vote, which was mostly symbolic. This is in part because the KRG cannot yet function as its own state: If the KRG chose to break away from Iraq, it would have to rely on other countries to export its goods. Turkey, in particular, would be key for Kurdish oil and natural gas exports, which would have to be transported through the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline. However, since Ankara is unlikely to look kindly upon an independent Kurdish state, Arbil's only current avenue for collecting energy revenues would be far from certain.

More important, Kurdish independence would undermine Arbil's relationships with Baghdad and the United States. From Baghdad's perspective, a declaration of independence by the KRG could carry an enormous price tag in terms of lost oil and natural gas revenues. Arbil has already claimed control of Kirkuk's contested oil fields, which have the potential to produce nearly a million barrels per day. It is also possible that if the KRG formally split from Iraq, it might increase the risk of Basra, Iraq's oil-rich province in the south, following suit. Meanwhile, the United States would find itself in an awkward position, unable to acknowledge the KRG's independence for fear of undermining its important relationship with Iraq. 

In all likelihood, this complicated web of interests and constraints will ensure that neither referendum ruffles the relationship between Ankara and Arbil. However, both votes will undoubtedly have a significant impact on the Kurds they rule. 

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