Why Kurdish leaders don’t tell the truth about Kurdish referendum

By Farhad Hassan Abdullah

Politicians are known for their use and abuse of language in order to reach self-serving purposes. Kurdish political leaders are no exception. John Mearsheimer contextualized this in a systematic analysis of lying as an instrument of governance. He identifies varieties, causes, costs, and associated potential benefits of lying. Based on a wealth of examples, he argues that leaders often lie for strategic reasons, therefore, an absolute condemnation of lying seems unrealistic and illogical. However, there are other types of deception besides lies such as concealment and spinning. Mearsheimer reports seven kinds of lies of “international lies”:

  1. Inter-state lies
  2. Fear-mongering
  3. Strategic cover-ups
  4. Nationalist mythmaking
  5. Liberal lies
  6. Social imperialism
  7. And ignoble cover-ups, which is a lie to hide unsuccessful policies or failures by the leader

With regards to the Kurdish referendum, why do Kurdish leaders avoid telling the truth?

Analysts have noted that Kurdish leaders are unusually cold to the truth in their public statements, often making statements that are evidently at odds with the facts. They simply show untruthfulness, fabrication and falsehood. The Kurdish referendum for independence is a most recent example. On 25 September 2017, the Kurdistan region of Iraq will be hosting an historic referendum that determines whether it will remain as part of the Iraqi republic or declare itself an independent Kurdish state. The referendum date was set after a meeting of Kurdish political parties chaired by Massoud Barzani on 07 June 2017.

Prior to the end of his term on 04 July 2014, Barzani asked the parliament to prepare for a referendum with the intention of declaring independence from the Iraqi republic. He also requested the formation of an electoral commission to take over the referendum.

However, he did not set a time for the referendum, leaving that decision to the members of parliament and the committee that would be formed for that purpose. But the parliament was suspended as a consequence to preventing the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament’s Speaker from entering Erbil on 12 October 2015. The crisis erupted after Barzani, whose term as president ended on 20 August 2015, refused to step down. Not surprisingly, he illegally remains in office. His final action was to set up a referendum without the parliament’s approval. He writes on twitter: “I am pleased to announce that the date for the independence referendum has been set for Monday, September 25, 2017.” On many occasions, Barzani pointed out that “many countries support the right of self-determination for the people of Kurdistan.” This is a baseless allegation, at best.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supported the independence of Kurdistan, he said that it was a necessary response to the expansion of the Islamic State (IS). Upon the weakening of IS, if again posed with the same question, Netanyahu’s answer would probably be different.

Locally, the Movement for Change and the Kurdistan Islamic Group refused to participate in a meeting of political parties in the Kurdistan region on 07 June 2017 that was called for by Barzani, to set up a time for a referendum.

Externally, the international community continues to oppose the partition of Iraq. Major international powers such as the US and the EU oppose a change to the map of the Middle East. Current conditions are still unsuitable for the independence of the region. This means that Kurdish leaders are required to solve their problems with the central government in Baghdad via dialogue and within the framework of the Iraqi constitution.

Similarly, regional powers have historically opposed Kurdish independence, and want the Kurds to remain within Iraq. States surrounding the Kurdish region such as Iran, Turkey, and Syria, oppose any efforts of independence of Kurdistan, as this could encourage the Kurds in their countries to engage in the same path.

What challenges will the region face towards achieving independence? Is there a consensus among political parties in the region in this concern? Are international and regional conditions conducive to the independence of Kurdistan?

Barzani constantly claims that a referendum is for independence. Hoshyar Zebari, a member of the political bureau of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), however, says that the referendum on the independence of the Kurds will strengthen the position of the Kurdistan region of Iraq in its negotiations with Baghdad, but will not lead to its separation from Iraq. He adds that the referendum is a democratic process, and no democratic state can oppose a referendum because “we are not talking about independence; we are talking about a referendum.”

Zebari also points out that voting on independence doesn’t mean that the Kurds would include the oil-rich Kirkuk region or other disputed areas in Kurdish-controlled territories.

Barzani, via political parties, presents himself as the president of the Kurdistan region. Due to the fact that he lacks legitimacy or legal cover to remain in this position, he does not have the right to nominate himself as an alternative to legitimate institutions, especially the parliament of the region and government departments.

Barzani’s move to hold a referendum on the secession of the region is a political outbidding and evasion to avoid any political and financial reforms in the region. This move is intended to conceal unsuccessful policies or failures, and an attempt to get the Kurdish people to overlook and perhaps shrug off internal problems.

The situation in Kurdistan requires an increased respect for the rule of law, as government departments are paralyzed with Barzani remaining in power.

Independence can only be achieved by building and respecting legal institutions.

After 12 years in office, Barzani refuses to step down as president. He does not have any legal authority over Kurdistan after the end of his mandate. The Kurdish people realized that poor living conditions, the suspension of salaries and general disruption of life were due to Barzani’s autocratic actions. According to Kurdish law, Barzani is ineligible for presidency anymore. Therefore, via his proposed referendum, he seeks to impose his will and illegitimate control over governance in the region. There haven’t been any genuine steps towards reactivating the Kurdistan parliament.

In summary, Kurdish leaders were not serious about the independence of Kurdistan. Current efforts to hold a referendum are just a political outbidding to overlook the internal political, legal and financial problems. In addition to this systematic abuse of language, extended talks about a referendum provide an avenue for Barzani to continue staying in power.

Farhad Hassan Abdullah is an Assistant Lecturer at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Sulaimania. 

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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