This week the owner of the Nalia Radio and Television corporation (NRT) in Sulaimani, Shaswar Abdulwahid Qadir, announced that he is forming a movement to campaign for the ‘no’ side
in the upcoming referendum on Kurdistan’s independence. According to NRT’s web site, Mr. Qadir “…expressed his opposition against holding the Kurdistan Region’s referendum on independence on the scheduled date, describing it as a move to ‘gamble with people's lives.’” He added that ““We need a courageous and brave movement in the Kurdistan Region which can protect people’s rights.”
The logic of such naysayers appears to be that “conditions for a referendum should be perfect” before being held. In other words, Hell should freeze over before the Kurds get to vote ‘yes’ to independence. When this columnist read the news about Mr. Qadir, he wondered two things: First, if Kurds lack confidence in themselves, who will have it for them? Second, when people from Kurdistan have such views, who needs external enemies?
This was not the right reaction for someone living safely and comfortably in the United States, however. The people of Kurdistan have a serious referendum being put to them and they live in a dangerous neighborhood. Whatever one thinks of Mr. Qadir’s perspective, the man does not lack courage. His independent television station was burned to the ground in 2011 a week after it started broadcasting, while it was providing non-stop coverage of protests in Sulaimani aimed at the ruling parties in Kurdistan. In 2013 Mr. Qadir was wounded during an attempted assassination.
Many people in Kurdistan probably view Mr. Qadir’s ‘no’ stance as treacherous, and wonder if he is funded by Baghdad, Iran or other foreign powers hostile to the Kurds’ bid for independence. These too are the wrong questions and attitudes towards Mr. Qadir and those like him, however.
Instead, a ‘no’ campaign from within Kurdistan should be welcomed by everyone. Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leaders and other supporters of the ‘yes’ side should use this opportunity to foster an open, respectful and well considered public debate on the serious issues related to the referendum. They should confidently and courteously offer to debate Mr. Qadir on his own television channel and invite him to debate on other networks as well.
If ‘yes’ supporters are ready for this referendum, they need to be able to explain clearly why the people can and should vote ‘yes’ on September 25. They should ask Mr. Qadir and other ‘no’ supporters when, exactly, they think a more suitable time for such a referendum could present itself? They could ask him when, exactly, he thinks Baghdad, Iran, Turkey, the United States and others will welcome a referendum on Kurdish independence? They could ask him how many of the newly independent states in the world – the likes of Slovenia, Croatia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Latvia, Eritrea, South Sudan and others – had clear and public international support for their independence before they themselves even made a move to secure it?
Without compromising Kurdistan’s interests, the ‘yes’ supporters also need to sketch out a rough outline of their vision for a new Kurdish state’s future. They need to discuss how they would see Kurdistan governed internally, and how it would maintain relations with neighbors. Such a debate will help the people of Kurdistan see and understand that vision and decide if they can trust in it.
By the same token, those supporting a ‘no’ on September 25 should describe their vision for remaining within Iraq. Since Baghdad demands things like monopoly control over oil and gas production and export throughout all of Iraq, and also holds the purse strings for Kurdistan’s budget (a budget that has been cut since 2014), how do the ‘no’ supporters envision securing real long-term Kurdish autonomy within Iraq? Do they even support autonomy? Since Baghdad demands the “return” of disputed territories which it refused to allow a referendum for (as stipulated by Article 140 of the Constitution), how do ‘no’ supporters envision dealing with this issue?
There exist many other questions as well, of course, which is why the more debate precedes the referendum, the better. Everyone needs to vote with a clear head and confidence on September 25.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.