10 Things Journalists Need To Hear About The Kurdish Referendum

By: Steve Oshana

Over the last couple weeks I have held calls with journalists regarding the planned Kurdish independence referendum. Some of those journalists will likely be covering the referendum as it approaches, but I thought I would share the main points that I have tried to reiterate to the media:

1) The referendum is kabuki theater: When I worked on campaigns, I worked on referendums all the time. One of my earliest initiatives was a referendum to voluntarily raise property taxes in district 219 to fund the school districts (it passed). I’m not an expert on the matter, but common sense tells me that these types of ballot measures ought to be on the ballot when everyone is voting in regular elections, which legitimizes them as they make it on through regular order. There is a legal mechanism for such a thing.

2) I’m still not sure how serious they are: I never believed the KRG actually wanted to hold a vote, but rather continue their game of political chicken with the threat of leaving Iraq. I always believed this was a negotiating tactic to solicit more concessions for the KRG on things like direct support, oil revenues, etc.

3) I may have been wrong about #2: The amount of money the KRG is spending on the PR leading up to this is staggering. They retain some very expensive consultants and lobbyists who have been furiously working the DC goodwill circuit on their behalf.

4) Saying “No” to the referendum legitimizes it: I think this is where most people approach the issue wrong. By opposing the referendum you are legitimizing the notion that the people, particularly in areas like the Nineveh Plain and Kirkuk, are going to the polls to make a legitimate choice. They are not. Pretending like there exists a “No” option is a farce.

5) Nobody denies the Kurdish people’s legitimate aspirations for independence: They have fought for it, suffered for it, and given endless lives for it. They have also been responsible for suffering of minorities, something that needs to be reconciled if they want to be taken seriously

6) You really can’t vote your way to freedom: The middle east, of all places, is a perfect example of that. Drawing arbitrary borders, especially in areas that are not traditionally yours, never ends well. People who become Nations typically only have one path to get there, and it rarely involves a ballot.

7) Iraq allowed this to happen: If Iraq truly believes the disputed areas are inherently Iraqi, they would have done something, anything, to try and stop the slow knife that is killing minorities in places like the Nineveh Plain. The Iraqi constitution, which squarely forbids such things, turned out to be a useless document that does not protect the rights of the people. Iraqi “democracy” got us to where we are today. For an example, look no further than the replacement of the mayor in a place like Alqosh, a 100% Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac town, by the Nineveh Provincial council. The fact that mayors in villages are not democratically elected allows local councils to remove and replace them at their pleasure, and with those who best represent their interests. This an institutional breakdown in democracy.

8) The US seems pretty ok with it: Never mind the fact that the current Secreatry of State, who as CEO of Exxon, signed away the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac village of Alqosh to the KRG and legitimized their claim to the Nineveh Plain. The administration’s tepid statement takes no tangible steps to actually stop the initiative, other than sending their representatives to the KRI with freebies to try to get them to rethink it. The US has almost complete leverage over the KRG, and the fact that they would not use it says something about their position. Not to mention that some senior administration officials have openly advocated Kurdish independence.

9) There was (and is) nothing stopping the Kurds from declaring independence: They have among the most effective fighting force in the country, and the Iraqi government has shown they will not step in to stop land confiscations, political oppression, or anything else, so what would Iraq actually do if they just declared independence? Probably nothing, if history serves as any metric.

10) The Nineveh Plain is not part of the KRG: This is probably the most important point, so I saved it for last. The press, with a few notable exceptions, has not even covered this issue. The governance of the Nineveh Plain should be decided by the people of the Nineveh Plain. Period. A vote is likely the best way to settle the issue, but it would need to be administered by the people of the NP themselves and overseen by various international organizations, such as the UNDPA or NDI, to validate the legitimacy of the vote. This referendum, by contrast, doesn’t even have any details about how it is going to be administered, let alone protect the integrity of the vote, and it is just a week away. The people of the Nineveh Plain, who are largely displaced, are mostly not even physically there to vote, which makes the vote not only illegal, but also can be reasonably seen as an attempt to use the displacement of millions of Iraqis to deny them their vote.

Map of Nineveh Plains

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