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How many Kurds will say ‘Yes’ to independence and why some may boycott the vote?

Flags of Kurdistan and a poster reading "Yes to referendum" hanging on the walls of Erbil's ancient citadel. Photo by Farzin Hassan/Rudaw

Middle East analyst and researcher Dr. Deniz Cifci has found out in a recent extensive survey carried out in the Kurdistan Region that 92 percent of voters will say ‘Yes’ to independence if the Kurds go for a referendum. For his upcoming book titled ISIS and the Kurds: The Roots of Conflict in Syria and Iraq, Dr. Cifci spoke to 120 politicians and 250 possible voters in Erbil, Sulaimani, and Duhok. The researcher says that in most areas people believed that the time had come for a referendum on independence and that they would vote to separate from Iraq without hesitation while in some areas people thought too many domestic political and economic problems in addition to regional opposition were reasons to put the project on hold for now. What was the main goal of this survey and who was your target group? The main reason was my forthcoming book titled “ISIS and the Kurds: The Roots of Conflict in Syria and Iraq”. I have been working in Kurdistan and in the Middle East since 2013 for a series of publications following my forthcoming book. Within this context, what I realized is not only the war with ISIS but the Kurds' political and economic relationships are also determinant in shaping their future and this could be even more dominant after certain point. We conducted research for nearly a month. We started to ask how the current political and economic crisis affects such an important referendum and whether the current problems could fasten or delay the process. We started our research with the political elites, including KDP (The Kurdistan Democratic Party), PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), Gorran (The Change Movement), the Islamic Union (Yekgirtu), the Islamic League (Komal), Islamic Movement (IMK), the Communist Party, leaders and deputy leaders, MPs, Women Organizations, business sector, and Peshmerga generals. We had an opportunity to interview almost 120 people [at the elite level] in total. We also interviewed 250 people from the public, which makes 370 participants in total. Elite participants were interviewed and a survey was distributed to the public. Our aim was to find an answer to the question of how do Kurdish politicians consider the referendum under the current political and economic crisis.

Your survey shows that the attitude to the question of referendum was different in Sulaimani. How so? The Kurdish political groups based in Sulaimani, especially those of Gorran, Komal, PUK and some NGOs and notables mentioned that they do not find it feasible to go for a referendum under these circumstances. We asked, “Are you against the independence?" They said “No”. We asked “Are you against the referendum?” The answer we received was “We are not against the referendum either. However, we have other problems that need to be solved before the referendum.” In other words, they mentioned that they would not accept a referendum before solving the issues of the activation of the parliament, regulating President Masoud Barzani’s presidency, and solving the economic crisis and corruption. Let’s assume those issues will not get solved. Will they still go along with the referendum? We asked this question to clarify the subject. The majority of the participants from Sulaimani mentioned that “No, we will not go with the referendum under these circumstances.” When we reminded them that in this situation there is a possibility of division, they said that “We do not want this, but if there will be a division, it will happen because of this.” How was the situation in Erbil and Duhok? The political elites we talked in Erbil and Duhok said “Yes” to the referendum during our interviews. When we reminded them that some groups were more concerned about political issues than the referendum, the representatives of the KDP, IMK, and Yekgirtu and NGOs that support them replied that “Yes, in these circumstances we do not want referendum, but it is inevitable, it will happen, because it is an opportunity. It needs to be done.” In terms of the economy, the dominant idea was “Kurdistan can only solve its internal problems after independence.”

So there are different opinions on this issue in each area. The Kurdish political elites based in Sulaimani mentioned that: Political crisis, economic problems and democratic improvements had to be solved before the referendum. Because after establishing Kurdistan these problems will only deepen. However, the political elites [KDP, some of IMK and Yekgirtu] based in Erbil, Duhok, and Zakho, believed that, “Yes there is a political crisis at the moment. After establishing Kurdistan it will be easier to tackle these problems and solve them.” How about the public opinion? We realized during our research that there is a distance between the public and the political elites. The work that has been carried out by the political elites do not interest the public after some time, and we realized that their political preferences come up more in their daily lives. We talked to around 120 people in Sulaimani and its surrounding, around 130 in Erbil, Duhok, and Zakho. This was mainly in the form of a survey. We asked these groups whether they say yes or no to the Kurds' independence. We received 92% yes to the independence of the Kurdistan. To the question of “how do you consider going to the referendum with these current problems?”, %76 of them provided a negative answer in Sulaimani. The people in Erbil, Duhok, and Zakho, however, say yes to the referendum in any circumstances. In general, %45 of the population said they do not find feasible to go to the referendum under these circumstances and they provided an opinion that the referendum should be done after solving the political and economic problems. However, %55 of them say the referendum should be done in any circumstances.

In our survey, almost %90 of the public mentioned that there is serious corruption. They said that Kurdish political parties consider their own benefits. Some participants mentioned that, “They use the referendum to cover the economic corruption and some contradictions within Kurdistan and create a distraction for the public.”

Has the war against ISIS been overshadowed by the internal conflict, economic crisis and corruption? The war with ISIS, one way or another can derail the politics in Kurdistan. We asked, “While there is a war with ISIS, do you think it will be better for President Barzani, as a political authority and as someone with international relationships, to remain in power for another couple of years?” Amongst the majority of the Erbil, Duhok, and Zakho, there is no problem with the presidency of Barzani. However, Sulaimani-based PUK, Goran and some parts of Komal replied that, “There are so many Kurdish leaders to take Barzani's place." Do the public trust the political parties? %86 of the public do not trust any of the political parties. In that regards how can we read the general conclusion? Almost all the Kurds, both political elites and public, say ‘yes’ to independence. However, they want to go to the referendum after solving the political and economic crisis. This shows, how internal conflicts affect the future of the Kurds. Why don’t the remaining of %7-8 want independence? This %7-8 are those who are very angry at Kurdish politics. For example, one taxi driver said that there are many martyred Peshmerga in his family; however they cannot afford to live, they are fed up with corruption, and they do not want to live in a Kurdistan like this. Another one mentioned that; the concept of Kurdistan became meaningless after corruption. Two Turkmens, who participated in the survey, mentioned that they want federalism. Also, because some Yezidis are so angry, they said they will not say yes to the Kurdistan without solving their problems.

Do you consider it feasible to go for a referendum under the current circumstances? When we look at the results, I think if Kurdistan goes for a referendum around %40-50 of the public will not say ‘no’ to the referendum but they will boycott it. If the %40-50 of them do not go to the referendum and if independence is accepted with %55-60 this is still a political shame. It is a shame to pass with %55-60 for the land where every inch of it is covered with the blood of the martyrs. Without any doubt it will pass but the difference between %60 and %90 will show some meanings related to the sociology and politics. This damages the Kurdish independence. I can say in that context that; it would not be feasible to go for a referendum if %45-50 of them will say no and boycott. Sulaimani should be convinced. Our survey results also supported this. Because in previous weeks Goran and PUK went to Baghdad and said, “We support a united Iraq.” Would Turkey and Iran factors be influential in saying “no”? When the internal political conflicts became that visible, they also affected the external relationships. The internal conflicts, especially the conflicts between KDP-PUK-GORRAN also affected the Kurdistan’s external politics and created the division. More clearly, it made Kurdistan open to external political interventions from its neighbouring countries. By benefitting from this division, Iran developed its political and economic relationships with Sulaimani considerably. On the other hand Turkey tried to increase its economic and political influence through Erbil. The internal division made foreign countries’ political interventions even easier. This obviously, made Kurdistan to consider the referendum based on its own political interests. Iran is totally against the independence of Kurdistan. Because of that, it will want to use its economic and political power as a tool to stop the referendum. I do believe that Iran has a huge influence on Gorran and PUK to go to the Baghdad and say, “We are part of Iraq.” The internal conflicts encourage Iran.


#MiddleEast #KurdistanIndependency #DrDenizCifci

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