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Kurdistan's independence referendum explained

By Rudaw 25/9/2017
An independent state is the dream of generations of Kurds. Photo: Sartip Othman
An independent state is the dream of generations of Kurds. Photo: Sartip Othman
Historical context

More than five million people are eligible to vote when the people of Kurdistan head to the polls on Monday, September 25, to decide whether they want to leave or stay with Iraq.

With an estimated global population of between 30 and 40 million, the Kurds are one of the largest ethnic groups without a state. Under the post-WWI Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916, Kurdish lands were divided between Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria.

Kurds in all four parts of what is known as Greater Kurdistan have faced persecution, discrimination, and genocide, and have fought at times for greater rights, autonomy, and independence. 

In Iraq, Kurds make up 17 to 20 percent of the total population. In the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq, Kurds have had a semi-autonomous government since a no-fly zone was established over their lands in 1991 after the first Gulf War.

The new Iraqi constitution that came into effect in 2005, after the US-led invasion of 2003, recognized the Kurdistan Region as a federal region with its own legislature and armed forces, the Peshmerga. Both Erbil and Baghdad have accused the other of violating the constitution. 

The September 25 referendum will take place in Kurdistan of Iraq only, not neighbouring countries.

High Referendum Council

The High Referendum Council consists of representatives from the majority of the Kurdistan Region’s political parties. It is chaired by Kurdistan Region President Masoud Barzani.

On June 7, the council set the referendum date of September 25.

Fourteen of Kurdistan’s political party attended the June 7 meeting, including three of the five members who formed a coalition government: Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU).

Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal), the remaining two members of the coalition government, oppose the party-led drive for the vote, instead called  for the regional legislature to convene in order to give the referendum a parliamentary mandate. They however boycotted the parliament session that backed the vote. 


The question being posed in Kurdish, Turkmen, Arabic and Assyrian languages is: Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the Region to become an independent state?

Voters can choose ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.

Kurdistan Region and Kurdistani areas (voters)

A total 5,338,000 people are eligible to vote in the referendum.

The vote will be held in the four provinces of the Kurdistan Region: Duhok, Erbil, Sulaimani, and Halabja. A total of 3,280,462 people are eligible to vote from these four provinces according to the following breakdown: 

Erbil: 1,118,775 voters with 498 polling stations
Sulaimani: 1,299,820 voters with 476 polling stations
Duhok: 771,867 voters with 264 polling stations
Halabja: 90,000 voters with 27 polling stations

Kurdistani areas, the disputed zones claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil, are also able to vote if the local authorities opt to participate. A potential 1,907,538 of people are eligible to vote in the Kurdistani areas according to the following breakdown:

Kirkuk: 889,373 voters with 244 polling stations
Diyala province: 800,000 voters with 244 polling stations
Kurdistani areas of Nineveh province: 218,165 voters with 244 polling stations

Eligible Kurds in the diaspora are able to vote online. E-voting will is open from September 23 to 25. An estimated 150,000 eligible Kurds live in the diaspora.

*figures provided by Kurdistan’s Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission

‘Yes’ vote

The slogan for the ‘Yes’ vote campaign is Bale bo serbexor, meaning ‘yes for independence.’

The campaign is being led by a media coordination center that is under the authority of the High Referendum Council. 

All political parties in the Kurdistan Region except for Gorran support the ‘yes’ vote. Gorran is not advocating a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote, but states that the timing is not right to hold the referendum. 

‘No’ vote

The main ‘No’ vote campaign is led by the No for Now movement, formed by NRT media outlet owner Shaswar Qadir to rally voters against supporting the September 25 vote. They argue that now is not the time for Kurds to make a bid for independence.

No political party has officially advocated for a ‘No’ vote.

Reaction to the vote

The Iraqi government officially opposes the referendum, deeming it unconstitutional and therefore illegal. The Iraqi parliament has voted to reject the referendum and the Supreme Court has issued an interim ruling to suspend the vote.

Regional nations

Iran and Turkey are both opposed to the referendum. 

Tehran has said it supports Iraq’s territorial integrity and has encouraged dialogue between Erbil and Baghdad. The country’s Supreme National Security Council has said it would withdraw its representation to the Kurdistan Region and close its borders if the referendum proceeds as planned. Tehran is of the view that relations it developed with Erbil were predicated on Kurdistan Region being a part of Iraq. If Kurdistan separates, it will deem all relations with Erbil, including border traffic, to be null and void. 

Ankara has vocally opposed the referendum, hinting at possible sanctions against the Kurdistan Region. Turkey’s Security Council, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, stated the referendum is a threat to its national security. Turkey particularly objects to the inclusion of Kurdistani regions in the vote as these include areas inhabited by the Turkmen minority. 

Most nations, led by the United States, have asked Kurdistan to postpone the vote until at least after the Iraqi elections due to be held in 2018. The US and others worry the referendum may distract from the war against terrorism, specifically ISIS, and may lead to further destabilization in Iraq. They have encouraged dialogue between Kurdistan and Iraq. 

The United Nations opposes the timing of the vote. The Secretary-General and the Security Council have expressed concern about the referendum being a distraction from the war with ISIS and an impediment to reconstruction of war-torn areas in order to allow internally displaced Iraqis to return home. The UN urges dialogue between Baghdad and Erbil.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come out in support of the vote. 

Key dates

June 7, 2017 - The High Referendum Council announces the September 25 date.

August 13, 2017 - A multi-party delegation tasked by the High Referendum Council arrives in Baghdad for several days of meetings with Iraqi officials, including Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and foreign representatives in the Iraqi capital.

August 22, 2017 - US Secretary of Defense James Mattis visits the Kurdistan leadership in Erbil, requesting postponement of the referendum.

September 12, 2017 - The Iraqi parliament votes to reject the Kurdistan independence referendum

September 14, 2017 - The Iraqi parliament votes to remove Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim from his post. Karim has been a vocal supporter of the referendum and of holding the vote in the disputed province of Kirkuk. He has refused to abide by the parliament decision, arguing Baghdad does not have the legal authority to remove him

September 14, 2017 - The US, UK, and UN present a joint proposal for Kurdistan to postpone the referendum while offering to aid negotiations with Baghdad. The proposal was rejected by the High Referendum Council.

September 15, 2017 - The Kurdistan Region parliament votes to approve holding the referendum on September 25 and upholds the decisions made by the High Referendum Council. Sixty-five of 68 MPs in attendance in the 111-seat chamber vote in favour. Gorran and Komal boycott the session.

September 18, 2017 - Iraq’s Supreme Court issues an interim ruling suspending the referendum.

September 23, 2017 - A multi-party delegation tasked by the High Referendum Council visits Baghdad again. No progress is made in talks. 

September 24, 2017 - Iran closes its air connections with Kurdistan, cancelling all flights at the request of Baghdad.

September 24, 2017 - The Iraqi government demanded Kurdistan hand over control of all borders, including airports, to federal authorities and for all nations to deal exclusively with Baghdad in the movement of people and goods across the borders, including oil. 


w | 25/9/2017
Baghdad's reactions only emphasize the reasons kurds wanted independence in the first place.
jake r | 25/9/2017
It will be a long hard fight, but well worth it in the long run. No people have ever become independent without a struggle, even America had to fight for their independence. Stay strong, and move forward...
Yoni | 25/9/2017
Vote Yes!! This is a historical opportunity not to be missed!
Sai Wansai | 25/9/2017
Existing nation-states would try to block non-state nation like the Kurdish people establishing a country of their own. But history is on the side of the oppressed. So in the end Kurdistan and Kurdish national identity will prevail, no matter how much the existing nation-states would protest and try to disrupt the process.

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