The Politics of the Kurdish Independence Referendum

How the Vote Could Provoke Crises and Silence Dissent

Kurdish leaders, clerics, and elders in Erbil, Iraq, August 2017. Azad Lashkari / REUTERS

On September 25, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani plans to hold a referendum on Kurdish independence. The results will not be legally binding, but in calling for a vote, the Kurdish leadership has put its own society and its foreign partners into a bind. Although the vote may extend the lifespan of a Kurdish leadership otherwise in decline, it calls for unity that mutes domestic dissent and risks provoking crises that will leave Kurdistan externally exposed.


The participation of Iraqi Kurdish forces in the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS) over the last few years won the region’s leaders unprecedented foreign military assistance and expanded control over ethnically mixed disputed territories along its internal boundary with the rest of Iraq. With the campaign’s culmination in the capture of Mosul this summer, however, external military support and international attention may taper off. For instance, the Pentagon recently acknowledged that although coalition troops could be expected to stay in Iraq after the defeat of ISIS, the U.S. footprint would be smaller and would involve fewer bases. Some Kurdish leaders thus believe they have a limited window of opportunity to organize a referendum, the second such attempt since 2005.

The proposed referendum has provoked deeply mixed reactions among Iraqi Kurds. Although some, especially among the older generation, genuinely believe that the vote will reward the Kurds for their decades-long struggle for autonomy, others, mainly among the younger generation, see it as a cynical ploy by Kurdish leaders to remain in power. Many—perhaps the majority—feel uneasy, torn between a desire to seize the chance the referendum claims to offer and mistrust of the leadership that put it forward. Prominent civil society leaders, including some journalists and activists, have publicly opposed the vote, and some political forces have stayed silent or offered only conditional support.

Massoud Barzani in Erbil, Iraq, July 2017.
Massoud Barzani in Erbil, Iraq, July 2017.  Azad Lashkari / REUTERS

It does seem apparent that the old guard—the generation of leaders that spearheaded the armed

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