Iraqi Kurdistan is putting its future to a vote. After a meeting between most of the region's Kurdish parties earlier in the day, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) announced June 7 that it would hold a referendum to determine whether to declare independence from Iraq. Nearly all the major political groups in attendance at the meeting — which the Gorran party boycotted to protest the hegemony of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in the KRG — backed the referendum, slated for Sept. 25. The decision marks a significant step for Iraqi Kurdistan, one that could have implications well beyond Iraq. But as the KRG learned in a similar vote in 2005, holding a referendum and following through on its results are two different things. And at this point, even holding one could prove a challenge.
Already, Iraqi Kurdistan's parties are at odds over how to carry out the vote. The current sticking point is whether Parliament will need to approve the referendum.
Gorran, along with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and most smaller Kurdish parties, insists that to hold the vote, lawmakers in the country must first pass legislation on the issue. Iraqi Kurdistan's Parliament, however, has not held a session in nearly two years because of a rift between KRG President Mahmoud Barzani and the Gorran party. The opposition group holds the Parliament speakership and has used the post to thwart efforts to reach a quorum in the legislature since October 2015 in protest over Barzani's failure to leave office after his term ended the previous year. (The KDP has also complicated past attempts at a quorum by blocking the Parliament speaker from entering Iraqi Kurdistan's capital of Arbil.) And despite its conviction that a referendum would require a legislative mandate, Gorran refuses to end its boycott, convinced that Barzani's plan to reactivate Parliament and hold the independence vote is a ploy to rally support around him and his party.
The KDP and the PUK have negotiated extensively over the last few months to find a way to convene the legislature and approve the referendum without Gorran. Their efforts seem to have paid off: The KDP has agreed to reopen Parliament, perhaps as soon as this month. The progress between the rival parties suggests that they are approaching an understanding over control of the region's energy resources, an issue the PUK raised in its recent showdown with the KDP in Kirkuk. Still, to get the 56 (of a total 111) votes it needs to pass a referendum bill, the ruling party will need to offer more concessions to the PUK and other parties in the legislature. Leaders in Iraqi Kurdistan may have to postpone the referendum as they negotiate over these matters.
For Turkey, a delay is a welcome prospect. The country is wary that the KRG's independence could embolden its own Kurdish separatist movement to redouble its opposition to the Turkish government. Consequently, Ankara will try to use its economic and political sway with the KRG to put off the referendum. Iran, which shares Turkey's concerns about Kurdish independence, will likewise call on its connections in Baghdad and Arbil in an effort to keep the Kurds in check. Other regional countries such as the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, are reportedly trying to facilitate the vote with funding — a blatant show of defiance against Iran.
Apart from the internal and external politics obstructing the vote, the inclusion of Kirkuk and other disputed territories in the referendum will also complicate the proceedings. Kirkuk is a multiethnic city whose strategic import extends far beyond the KRG. The city lies along Iran's overland path to Syria, and it is the site of valuable energy infrastructure over which Baghdad will be loath to cede its control. In addition, Turkey has ties with Kirkuk's sizable Turkmen population, who have already begun protesting the referendum. So though agreeing to hold a referendum was an accomplishment for Iraqi Kurdistan's political parties, it is only half the battle.