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Social Media Smoke Signals:
Why Iraqi Kurdistan’s Independence Referendum May Be Doomed

Histyar Qader
On social media, Iraqi Kurdish voters are passionately debating a planned referendum on Kurdish independence. But the debate already indicates how Kurdish politicians are heading for a mutually destructive showdown.
5.07.2017  |  Erbil
Iraqi Kurdish flag: For decades, just being Kurdish was enough to unite locals on the topic of independence.
Iraqi Kurdish flag: For decades, just being Kurdish was enough to unite locals on the topic of independence.

Early last month leading Iraqi Kurdish politician Massoud Barzani announced that the Kurdish people of Iraq were ready to hold a referendum about becoming independent from the rest of country.

Iraq’s Kurdish minority mostly live in a semi-autonomous region in the north, which has its own parliament, borders and military. The people here have talked about becoming independent from Iraq for a long time but the idea always seemed – and possibly still is – unrealistic, in terms of economics and international politics. But now, Barzani, who currently acts as president of the region, has decided the Kurdish people should vote on independence once again – and apparently most of the other political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan agree.

The referendum is supposed to be held on September 25 this year and Barzani has instructed electoral officials to start preparing for the momentous vote. The referendum was originally meant to be held in 2014 but due to various problems around the whole idea, it was postponed. And in 2005, an informal referendum was held, during which around 98 percent of those who participated wanted independence.

The referendum on independence shouldn’t be used to serve personal interests. It is being used to further political ambitions.

Despite the fact that ethnicity - Kurdishness - has held the northern Iraqi region together for literally decades, there are still plenty of naysayers when it comes to Barzani’s new plan for a referendum. And for now, much of the conflict is playing out on social media.

On one side, there are the Facebook users who have changed the names of their pages or started new pages to express their enthusiasm.

“Facebook is a way of getting more sympathy for this idea and for patriotism,” explains Ahmad Fattah, 56, who changed his Facebook page to say: Yes to Kurdish Independence.

Didar Anwar, 27, says he changed his Facebook page this way, to show his friends how important the referendum is.  

Coming up with opposing arguments are people like Mahdi Abu-Bakr, an academic who changed his Facebook page to read just the opposite: No to The Referendum.

“Within just 24 hours, more than a hundred others have also changed their pages to this slogan,” Abu-Bakr told NIQASH.  “Additionally, more than a hundred academics and intellectuals inside and outside the country are organizing a campaign against the referendum because it is illegal and lacks a proper goal.”

“[The referendum on] independence shouldn’t be used to serve personal interests,” says a 34-year-old Facebook user who wished to be known only as Ardalan. “Run this way, it’s only about covering up what politicians have stolen and is being used to further political ambitions. Also, it is obviously part of the beginning of election campaigning,” he added.

Observers suggest that at the heart of the conflict between the two fronts on social media lie the Facebook users’ political affiliations. Barzani’s party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, is a firm advocate of the referendum. Their steadfast opponents, the Change movement, has many reservations about it, although they stop short of being completely opposed. The latter would be politically unpopular.  

In a June 10 statement, Shorsh Haji, a leading member of, and spokesperson for, the Change movement, said at a press conference, that the referendum was “illegal and partisan”.

“The referendum should not be used as a means to avoid having to find solutions to existing political problems,” Haji argued.

The referendum has been “wrongly used”, said Aso Mahmoud, another senior member of the Change movement based in Sulaymaniyah. However, Mahmoud says that the Change movement is not against the referendum, only that his party has severe doubts.

There were a number of things that needed to happen before Iraqi Kurdistan could become independent, Mahmoud said. This includes unifying the Iraqi Kurdish military so that it did not belong to two separate parties but worked for the whole region, without partisan affiliations. Local infrastructure also needed to be improved before the Kurdish could say goodbye to Baghdad, Mahmoud argued.

Additionally, there are still plenty of serious political conflicts in Iraqi Kurdistan. One of the biggest problems between the KDP and the Change movement is that Barzani has remained president of the region far longer than legislation says he can. This problem resulted in the shutdown of the Iraqi Kurdish parliament and the removal of Change movement MPs from the Kurdish capital, Erbil.

“However, the referendum process has been started before any of these things have been resolved,” Mahmoud stated.

With regard to the pro- and anti-referendum campaigns that were dominating Kurdish social media, Mahmoud believes that this is happening because “of the big distance between the government and the people. That’s why ordinary people are taking a stand on social media”.

Representatives of the KDP are not so sure. The campaigns against the referendum on social media are a result of intolerance for any other opinions, argues Abdelsalam Barwari, a senior member of the KDP.

Barwari admits that most of the supporters of the referendum are aligned with the KDP. But he says the KDP’s people didn’t start this fight on social media. “They only responded,” he told NIQASH. “Those who are against the referendum are simply those who are automatically opposed to the KDP anyway.”

Aram Jamal Sabir, director of the Kurdish Institute for Elections, which monitors the electoral processes in the region, confirms this. He too believes that the pro- and anti-referendum groups on social media can be neatly divided into supporters of the KDP and the Change movement.

The online debate is likely to go on for a long time, Sabir says, but the discourse could easily change if the relationship between the political parties changes.

There is only one problem with the current online debate, other locals say – and that is what appears to be the knee-jerk reactions to the whole idea of the referendum.

We will be keeping an eye on social media to ensure guidelines for election campaigning are maintained, Zarar Nabi, the spokesperson for the Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission in Iraqi Kurdistan, told NIQASH, adding that his organization encourages participation and people being free to vote according to their consciences.

The problem is, as the stoush on social media already shows, Kurdish voters are simply lining up behind their parties of choice and not dispassionately working out if now is the right time for much-longed-for Kurdish independence.

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