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Have Kurds Moved Beyond Tribalism?

By DAVID ROMANO 21/7/2017
Have Kurds Moved Beyond Tribalism?


I first visited South (or Iraqi) Kurdistan in the summer of 1994. That summer the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) almost squandered the autonomy that the 1991 Gulf War gifted them by descending into civil war. I visited for my second time in 2000. Immediately following the March 2003 Iraq war, I lived in Sulaimani for close to a year. During a sabbatical from my university this year, I spent another five months in Erbil.

During these stays in South Kurdistan and during many other shorter visits, I would often ask people I knew or even just met about their views on Kurdish independence. Except for one taxi driver in Erbil in 2010 who liked Nuri al-Maliki, during all this time I never met a Kurd who did not support Kurdish independence.

In 2003 I spent many an evening with Kurdish friends and students in Sulaimani, listening to them talk about how they hoped this latest war would finally realize their dreams of independence – if not today, then perhaps within ten or fifteen years. 

To hear some of these same friends now talking about voting ‘no’ in the upcoming referendum thus leaves me dumbfounded. While virtually everyone I know in Erbil and Duhok solidly support a ‘yes’ vote on September 25, a good number of those in Sulaimani seem to be reveling in casting doubt on the viability of Kurdish independence, the shortcomings of the current KDP-led Kurdistan government, economic problems and so forth. Although the situation was much worse in 1994, 2000 and even 2003, they seem much more negative about independence than they used to be.

Your humble columnist can’t help but think that the real reason for some of these people’s outlook, even for self-proclaimed modern, secular and urban Kurds, boils down to tribalism or party politics. They find themselves sour about the referendum because the initiative was put forward by President Masoud Barzani and his KDP first and foremost, whom many PUK, Gorran and other party supporters dislike. 

Such an outlook boggles the imagination for those of us from places where the nation is supposed to come before party, sect or tribe. If someone in Kurdistan truly has more faith in the Iraqi federal government than that of Kurdistan, if they prefer autonomy within Iraq (or whatever version of such they get from future regimes in Baghdad), or if they feel more Iraqi than Kurdish, then of course they should vote ‘no’ on September 25 and everyone should respect that.

But for self-described ardent supporters of Kurdish independence to now talk about voting ‘no’ or abstaining from the referendum contradicts everything they claim to want. The timing has never been more favorable for South Kurdistan’s independence, and may not again prove so favorable within current voters’ lifetimes. While voting ‘yes’ on September 25 is not risk-free, remaining within Iraq carries grave risks as well. 

Would KDP stalwarts or Islamist Kurdish nationalists in Erbil or Dohuk betray a similar attitude if PUK or Gorran Movement leaders had led the push for a referendum?  Perhaps – in which case they too would make themselves as undeserving of independence as any people ever was. 

The real test will come on September 25. Perhaps on that day the vast majority of average people in all of Kurdistan’s provinces, not blinded by partisanship and mindful of a lifelong yearning for independence, will take a clear and straightforward look at a very simple referendum question: “Do you want an independent Kurdistan?” 

They should answer the question honestly, or stop droning on forever about what they want or deserve while they refuse to reach out and grab it. For those concerned about good governance, President Masoud’s term in office, democratic rights, equality, and the other concerns of politics, the time to vote on these issues will come very shortly after the referendum. 

As reported in Rudaw this week, Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani has set November 1, 2017 for parliamentary and presidential elections in the Kurdistan Region. Kak Masoud has also clearly stated that he will not run in this election. Disgruntled voters in Sulaimani can vent themselves at the polls on that day rather than September 25, voting for whomever they like. 

In the meantime, Kurdistan’s political leadership is simply turning to the people to democratically gauge their preferences for the future. These same leaders have been very responsible in security matters and in their foreign relations during the past twenty years or so. It is therefore up to Kurdistan’s voters to state their preference for the future. While a declaration of independence may not follow the very next day, the leadership of all the parties will know where the people wish to go. 

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.

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