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Most Kurds in Iraq support independence. So why did some voters stay home during last week’s referendum?

- October 6, 2017
A child with a Kurdish flag is carried during the Sept. 25 referendum on regional independence in Halabja, Iraq. (Nicole Watts)

The day before a referendum on independence, all was business as usual in the city of Sulaimani, the second-largest city in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. While many other Kurdish cities were awash in flags and banners, Sulaimani’s streets looked bare by comparison. But the muted atmosphere did not represent its population’s attitudes on Kurdish statehood. Like most of the Kurds in Iraq, the 1.3 million citizens of Sulaimani province historically support the idea of independence.

Rather, the atmosphere reflected the deep concerns over how the referendum was called and its implications for the distribution of power under the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Who called the election and why it matters

Unlike other high-profile referendums in places such as Catalonia and Scotland, where elected parliaments passed bills calling for an independence vote, Kurdistan’s was called by one man, KRG President Masoud Barzani, who continues to serve even after a controversial two-year extension of his term expired in August of 2015.

Critics of Barzani were loath to support what they saw as a partisan maneuver likely to legitimate his authority and further consolidate his Kurdistan Democratic Party’s grip on power, which has tightened since the closure of the Kurdistan regional parliament in late 2015. The 111-seat parliament did hastily reconvene 10 days before the referendum, approving it 65 to 3. However, the Sulaimani-based opposition party Gorran — the second most successful party in the 2013 Kurdistan regional election — boycotted, as did the Kurdistan Islamic Group (Komal), calling the vote and the referendum “unlawful.” A third of the lawmakers in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the traditional power in Sulaimani and rival-turned-junior-partner of the KDP, also stayed away.

In the end, the referendum was passed by 92.7 percent of voters according to the Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission. In Sulaimani province, about 80 percent of voters said yes. But hundreds of thousands of people, unable to convince themselves to say no to something they had long dreamed of, voted with their feet and stayed home.

Counting those who didn’t vote

Though turnout for all provinces was a solid 72.7 percent, only half of Sulaimani’s registered voters — 663,000 out of 1,324,000 registered voters — went to the polls. Turnout was not much better in neighboring Halabja province. Results reported by NRT television showed a 54 percent turnout rate of its 73,570 registered voters. Small but symbolically iconic as the site of the 1988 chemical gassing that killed around 5,000 civilians, the news of Halabja’s low turnout elicited furious responses on social media from some pro-referendum supporters.

Getting any kind of official (or reliable) data in Iraqi Kurdistan is difficult, and even for regular elections it can be challenging to find detailed electoral results. Typically, the Kurdistan provinces have the highest voter turnout in Iraq — on the order of 70 percent to 80 percent — but the lack of city-, district-, and sometimes even province-level information means it is hard to know whether Halabja or Sulaimani’s referendum participation is typical, or even if the reported figures are accurate.

What is clear is that those who stayed away did so for a variety of reasons. In the case of Halabja, little or no effort was made to get people out to vote. Though Barzani routinely cited the attack on Halabja as evidence of the need for independence and held rallies in cities across his stronghold of Duhok, he never visited Halabja.

Uncertainty over whether the referendum would take place and divisions within the PUK over whether to support it muted any local campaign effort. People also faced logistical challenges in getting to one of its 27 polling stations: Many Halabjans work in Sulaimani and Irbil, and for those in rural areas it was difficult to get to the polls.

Many Kurds distrust the KRG

But many registered voters deliberately abstained or invalidated their votes. Some didn’t think a change in the nature of statehood would improve their lives: “The government will do what it will do, and nothing ever changes, so why should I bother?” said one 38-year-old Halabjan nurse with whom I spoke.

Some profoundly distrust Barzani and refused to do anything that might further empower him. Others refused to participate in a process backed by politicians they hold responsible for a several-years-long political and financial crisis that has crippled the region.

Kurdish teachers, doctors and other government employees went months without pay in 2015 and their monthly paychecks have since been half of what they are owed, and in arrears. Sulaimani has the lowest average salaries in the region — $600 a month compared to $1,000 a month in Irbil — and more people there work for the public sector, meaning they were particularly hard hit by the crisis. One young Sulaimani doctor brings home $350 a month, barely enough to pay his rent. He told me he abstained from voting.

If supporters of the referendum hoped it could close Kurdish ranks, in some ways it succeeded. Seemingly blind to political geography, the yes-vote came from all parts of Iraqi Kurdistan and Kurdistan-administered contested areas. Celebrations among Kurds in cities across the region on the night of the referendum illustrated the degree to which a Kurdish national vision is still capable of transcending state and organizational boundaries.

Even those who didn’t vote on Sept. 25 said they were moved and humbled by the sight and sound of thousands of Iranian Kurds celebrating in the streets.

At the same time, the fact that about a third of registered voters either did not cast a ballot or voted “no” on the referendum highlights the deep mistrust and continuing tensions that an independence vote could not paper over. Despite a decade of KDP-PUK power-sharing in Irbil, longtime rivalries persist. Ineffective governance, a lack of political accountability and the highly skewed distribution of wealth in the new Kurdistan have fueled new tensions between authorities and ordinary people.

Nicole F. Watts is a professor of political science at San Francisco State University.