As polls for the referendum close in the KRG, parties that initially wanted to postpone the referendum put forward their support for a 'yes,' in a pragmatic move ahead of the November elections.

Although other parties had not explicitly opposed the referendum, many Kurdish leaders had expressed scepticism about the referendum citing timing issues, and questioning the intentions of the regional government president Masoud Barzani.
Although other parties had not explicitly opposed the referendum, many Kurdish leaders had expressed scepticism about the referendum citing timing issues, and questioning the intentions of the regional government president Masoud Barzani. (Reuters)

People in the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government (KRG)-controlled territory headed to the polls on Monday to vote in a referendum that will determine support for independence. The referendum was spearheaded by President Masoud Barzani's political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). 

Various political parties of the KRG that had opposed holding the referendum at the current time, but when it became clear that the referendum was going ahead, most started pushing for a “yes” vote.

Even though they never declared open opposition to the referendum, the Movement for Change Party (Gorran), the second largest party of the region, boycotted the KRG’s parliament session approving the referendum, which was held on September 15.

All six MPs from the Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal) had also boycotted the session.  

Hours ahead of the vote, however, Gorran said in a statement that the people are “free in how they deal with this process,” and earlier on Sunday, Komal also announced that they backed a “yes” vote.

Controversial vote

Although other parties had not explicitly opposed the referendum, which has widespread support among the Kurdish population, many Kurdish leaders had expressed scepticism about the referendum, citing timing issues as well as questioning Barzani's intentions.

The call for the referendum was spearheaded by Barzani, who cited a failed partnership with Baghdad as the reason behind the referendum. However, experts view Barzani’s push for the referendum as a pragmatic manoeuvre having more to do with internal politics.

Analysts point to the region’s economic woes as well as Barzani’s attempts to garner support amid a decrease in the number of followers and increasing strains among the various parties in the KRG.

“There is political polarisation in northern Iraq where [presidential and parliamentary] elections  are going to take place at the end of the year," Can Acun, foreign policy researcher at Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) told TRT World.

An old man rides a bike near banners supporting the referendum Erbil.
An old man rides a bike near banners supporting the referendum Erbil. (Reuters)

Barzani’s position threatened

Barzani had been losing support in the semi-autonomous region for several years. Economic problems and security issues, combined with corruption allegations and growing distrust of the KDP, had been threatening the leader’s position, whose tenure as president ended in August 2015.

He has remained in office since then through a decision of the Kurdistan Consultative Council, in a move criticised by opposition parties. 

The second and third biggest parties of the region, Gorran and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), whose numbers combined were more than the KDP's, had opposed Barzani staying in office.

The two parties signed a cooperation agreement in May 2015, which meant that together they had more members in the parliament than the KDP.

The two parties wanted to bring a bill to the parliament which would allow for the president to be chosen by a parliamentary vote as opposed to going to a presidential election. 

The KDP opposed the move.

The political crisis worsened when the parliament closed in October, 2015 and the speaker of parliament, from Gorran, was barred from entering the capital city of Erbil by Barzani during the political dispute.

The PUK, which has relatively better relations with Baghdad, did not openly oppose the referendum, and underlined, instead, alongside Gorran, that the existing parliament needed to reopen before a referendum was carried out.

The PUK has its own Peshmerga forces which holds the power in Suleymaniyah province, the southern province of the semi-autonomous region. The headquarters of Gorran also is in Suleymaniyah, since most of its members had broken out from PUK.

As the referendum neared, the PUK was more open in its support for the referendum.

Analysts say that Barzani found himself backed into a political corner, and is using the referendum to galvanize public support ahead of the November 6, 2017 parliamentary elections.

"Barzani wants to use the process of independence through nationalistic sentiments [to bolster his support],” Acun said.

Changing positions

Gorran boycotted the parliament convened in September 15 to vote about holding the referendum, and disputed it on procedural grounds.  

“This is legitimising the illegitimate High Referendum Council,” said Gorran in a statement read in parliament.

The High Referendum Council was created for the puposes of holding the referendum and is headed by Barzani.

Out of 111 parliamentarians, 65 out the present 68 MPs voted in favour of holding the referendum.

A day before the referendum, Gorran released a statement saying that their followers could choose to vote in the referendum if wanted.

Later, Gorran leader Omar Ali said he voted “yes” in the referendum.

Komal, which had opposed the referendum on similar grounds to Gorran announced a day before the vote that it was supporting a “yes” vote.

As the referendum is underway, most of the Kurdish politicians who had not seemed in favour of the vote put forward their support for a “yes” vote.

With parliamentary elections weeks away, analysts say it may be the most pragmatic decision.

"It's quite risky for any political party not to support Barzani's decision considering its potential loss of electorate, prestige and trust in the future," Goktug Sonmez, a researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), told TRT World.

Source: TRT World