Explainer: Kurdish referendum will bolster independence push but non-binding

Iraqi Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, who led the independence drive, has himself reassured the international community that the referendum result will not draw borders and is meant to provide his administration with a 'legitimate mandate' to negotiate secession of Kurdish-controlled regions of Iraq from Baghdad

Officials open a ballot box after the close of the polling station during Kurds independence referendum in Erbil, Iraq September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari
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Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region has held its long-awaited referendum on independence despite mounting international opposition, with results expected to be heavily tipped in favour of separation.

But although the referendum will bolster calls for Kurdish independence from Iraq, the vote has no legal mandate.

Iraqi Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, who led the independence drive, has reassured the international community that the referendum is non-binding and is meant to provide his administration with a “legitimate mandate” to negotiate secession of Kurdish-controlled regions of Iraq from Baghdad.

Baghdad’s central government has repeatedly rejected the poll, describing it as “illegal” and “unconstitutional”, while Tehran and Ankara both fear the vote will ignite separatist aspirations among their own sizeable Kurdish minorities.

There is a widespread fear among the international community, meanwhile, that a "Yes" vote will unleash an unstoppable momentum in the push for independence that will eventually lead to revolt and bloodshed.

“Legally there is no process for separation in Iraq, so independence for Kurdistan has to come from a ruling outside of the Iraqi constitution,” Dr Renad Mansour, senior fellow at the British think tank Chatham House, said.

Article one of the Iraqi constitution stipulates that “the Republic of Iraq is a single, independent federal state with full sovereignty”.

As a result, for Iraqi Kurdistan to gain independence the “international community must recognise it [as a state]” Mr Mansour said.


Read more on the referendum:

Analysis: Independence vote a smokescreen for Barzani's domestic political woes 


Mohammed Hineidi, a Dubai-based expert on the Levant, said a "Yes" vote would give Mr Barzani a mandate to begin secession talks with the central Iraqi government, despite Baghdad saying it would not enter into independence negotiations with Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region.

But, he added: “For Iraq now, not much will change on the ground, unless violence erupts in the oil rich contested city of Kirkuk, which the Iraqi government has threatened with military intervention.”

The ethnically diverse city of Kirkuk is one of a number of areas outside of the autonomous Kurdish region that are controlled by Kurdish forces but claimed by both Erbil and Baghad.

Mr Barzani stressed on Sunday that the referendum result would not draw borders, and that a "Yes" vote would result in talks with Baghdad lasting at least a year or two. However, he stressed that the "failed partnership" with the "sectarian state" of Iraq was over.

"Baghdad will likely make its move on the disputed areas prior to negotiations in order to limit Kurdistan just to Erbil, Dahok, Sulemanyia (the provinces that make up the autonomous Kurdish region) and this will reduce Kurdistan’s leverage even more," Michael Rubin, resident scholar at the DC-based American Enterprise Institute think tank, said.

"When it comes to negotiation, while Baghdad might eventually offer some sort of confederation, in the short term I wouldn’t expect any change. Baghdad will be content to let Kurdistan experience the economic hardship that it can expect if it tries to go it alone as a landlocked, politically divided country," Mr Rubin said.

As a landlocked region, an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would need to ensure it had friendly allies in neighbouring states, Mr Mansour added.

“The Kurds need friends to be able to import and export oil and gas; for them Turkey is the most important actor.”

Ankara has strongly declared its opposition to the referendum, carrying out military exercises near its border with the Iraqi Kurdish region.

But, Mr Mansour said, “behind closed doors the vote will not impact relations between the two as long as the Kurds do not declare independence".

So why has Mr Barzani pushed for a non-binding referendum?

Mr Mansour believes it is important to recognise the referendum within the prism of a post- ISIL Iraqi political settlement.

"With the military battle against ISIL declining, many of the political parties are coming to the table to negotiate what comes next for Iraq, to negotiate a rebuilding of the Iraqi state," Mr Mansour said.

"The Kurds believe that in order for them to have strong leverage and strong seat at the table in this process they need to have some sort of threat of independence or some sort of power."

In addition, Mr Barzani was "keen to hold the referendum now due to the economic woes in the Kurdistan Regional Government, and to distract from the criticisms being leveled against him and his administration", Mr Hineidi said.