The Kurdish Independence referendum despite the pressure from Iraq and many other Middle Eastern and European countries opened its polls this morning.
The ballot contains a single question: “Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?”
People will cast their ballots in about 2065 polling stations until 8PM (GMT+3) while Iraqi Kurds living abroad had the ability to vote the day before. The vote covers the territories of Northern Iraq. All combined, 5.6 million Kurds are eligible to vote according to the High Referendum Council.
With Israel being the only country to support the vote, the number of detractors is overwhelming: Turkey, Iran, Syria, Russia, the United States and the United Nations, not to mention Iraq itself, have all opposed the referendum. Amongst them, Turkey is the most vocal, threatening blocking Kurdistan, unless the plebiscite is cancelled altogether.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that Ankara would close the Habur border crossing with northern Iraq over the plebiscite and also threatened the Iraqi Kurds with blocking their key oil exports. These measures are understandable, considering there are 14 million Kurds living in Turkey that can be considered a fifth column. The rest of the detractors, on the other hand, are more reasonable: they demand that the fate of Kurdistan is to be decided by reaching an understanding with Baghdad first.
The UN has warned of the vote’s “potentially destabilizing effect,” while the US has said it could fuel regional unrest and distract attention from ongoing campaigns to rout the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group in Iraq and Syria.
Even in Kurdish regions of Northern Iraq the situation regarding the referendum is not clear-cut. While the overwhelming majority of Kurds has voiced their support for independence on social media, a countermovement led by a group of activists and politicians argued in favor of postponing the referendum under the slogan “No for now”, supported by Gorran (Change) and Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) parties. Holding the referendum under the current political conditions and without solving internal crises in the Kurdistan Regional Government is a “dangerous step” to take, according to their joint statement.
The debate has also sparked a discussion about the inclusion of the disputed territories – such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk and parts of the Nineveh and Diyala provinces. These are controlled by the Kurdish military and lie outside of Kurdistan Regional Government’s defined borders, but are regarded by Kurdish leaders as integral parts of any independent Kurdish state. The inclusion of Kirkuk, in particular, has incensed Turkmen in the ethnically mixed region, who dubbed the decision of partaking in the upcoming vote “unconstitutional”.
Kirkuk, regarded as part of the state of Iraq by Baghdad, and part of the autonomous Kurdish region by the KRG, officially announced its participation in the referendum last month.