Kurdistan and the Referendum Dichotomy

by Gimo Zangana    


Debates surrounding the Kurdistan independence referendum have become locked into a dichotomy between independent self-determination and statelessness. This binary reflects the traditional assumptions of the world often taken by international relations theorists and political analysts in the West. It misses the deeper and more complex realities of the situation within Kurdistan, throughout the region and globally. As a consequence, alternative solutions, voices and perspectives are ignored or missed, leaving only an either/or possibility on the table of discussion. 

During September of 2017, just over one hundred years since the Sykes-Picot agreement, citizens of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will be voting whether to stay within Iraq as a federal semi-autonomous state or to leave Iraq and proclaim a new independent Kurdish nation-state. An independent South Kurdistan will make it the 196th recognised
nation-state under the United Nations system and the 49th nation-state in Asia. In terms of population, South Kurdistan would be roughly around the same as Norway, at 5.2 million (KRG website, 2017). It's main income comes from oil, agriculture and tourism. The mountainous region is surrounded by hostile regimes who will most likely contest the new state. To the south and east, Iran and Iraq have disputes with territory for example in Kirkuk the Shia militia have shown signs of hostility.

In the south-west, Daesh, although weakened, still poses a threat. In the north, Turkey continues to feel threatened by a
Kurdish state due to its own suppressed Kurdish populations and to the West, relations with the Democratic Union Party (PYD) are tense. On top of this there remains serious domestic issues like a struggling economy, nepotism, corruption, large inequality, lack of a strong civil society and bloody disputes between parties and factions. Nevertheless, the KRG is going ahead with the referendum.

There are arguments for and arguments against self-determination. Proponents claim that now is the perfect time for change. Kurds are internationally recognised and hailed as a rational secular people whilst Iraq is crumbling. Furthermore, the Kurds deserve to have their own independence due to the injustices committed against them by regimes such as Daesh and Saddam Hussein. There are arguments against self-determination which mostly suggest that it may disrupt the region into more violence and that the country is not ready due to a ruling oligarchy and a lack of democracy. Nevertheless, most of those debating will agree that the Kurds do deserve the freedom they have lacked for one hundred years and that self-determination is the end goal that will enable their freedom.

Therefore, sooner or later an independent and sovereign Kurdistan nation-state will emerge.

However, the long term “dream” and debate for self-determination is centred around an either/or choice that leaves most Kurds with a difficult dichotomy; freedom as a nation-state or lack of freedom as a stateless nation. This dichotomy embodies a deeper problem that is part of a traditional method of seeing the world which originates from Western assumptions and political thinking. The tradition can be dated back to Socrates and advanced by enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes, Hobbes, Hegel and Marx. It is a dialectic that believes there is a universal truth which we must investigate and implement through rational linear thinking and action. In this case, the universal truth is that people are territorially divided into nations and each and every nation has the right to be a sovereign nation-state, so as to be recognised and respected by others but also to provide stability and order in an anarchic world of violence and chaos. The dichotomy is between order and chaos. This way of thinking is what we see today as the United Nations system but it's historical name is the Westphalian system. Understanding this is the key to understanding the problem with the referendum dichotomy.

The treaty of Westphalia in 1648 set out to end the violence and war that Europe was embroiled in at the time and create a new political system of order that would eventually shift the international system from empires to nation-states. The nation-states would ensure the political freedom of national populations to choose their own path in history rather than be dominated by a centralising imperial power. At the same time this system attempts to simplify the realities of the world, applying a positivist method towards nature and society, in order to manage and control it better and thus completely eradicate chaos and anarchy. This form of political organisation took a global position during the two world wars in which the last empires (Hapsburg, Romanov and Ottoman) were finally eroded. Since then, the Westphalian system has become the dominant political system and the norm and has pushed the growth of capitalism, industrialism and nationalism to a global level under the guise of liberalism, representative democracy and civilised development. As a result, Kurdistan must choose whether to exist in this modern international world with the power, freedom and rights of a sovereign or not exist.

 Even in academic classrooms and the offices of think-tanks, there are those which think that there is no alternative to the state. Some believe that the world is stuck between self-interested states, and that Kurds must master the art of selfish politics to succeed. Others believe that nation-states are the best vehicle, in fact the only one, to allow for the communities of the world to come together. But there are some theorists who recognize what the State has meant for the colonized, what it has done to women, and what it has done to our imagination. 

We ought to, however, not look at the world through binaries. The world is complex, plural, inter-subjective and multi-faceted. We need a method to approach self-determination without falling into binary thinking. According to one L.H.M Ling, Taoism -- in its cyclical thinking, and it's recognition of complementarity alongside, and within, contradiction, provides us with such a method. Taoism, as Cox puts it, "offers an alternative conception of universalism, which rests on comprehending and respecting diversity in an ever changing world."

Most importantly, we're now not stuck with the question of either having a Kurdish State or renouncing one. Multiple political systems can co-exist in this world, and learn from each other in a mutual relationship. One such political system is Democratic Authonomy and Democratic Confederalism promoted by the Kurds in Turkey and Syria through the Kurdish Communities Union (KCK).

This bottom-up self-government system practises direct participative democracy through institutions and communal administration. However, being autonomous does not mean a separate sovereign entity. This means it can coexist within and without a nation-state in a complementary manner. “Democratic Confederalism is not oriented towards the taking over of state-power, or even focusing on the state, but on developing alternative forms of power through self-organisation”, as Jongerden & Akkaya put it. Therefore, such a political system prioritises what is best for communities and individuals within and beyond the Westphalian system and capitalist modernity.

In Democratic Autonomy and Democratic Confederalism, communities and individuals practise direct participative democracy in their everyday lives and skip the need to establish a nation-state. The people are also responsible for the defence and security of their regions, either at a local level through defence commissions and neighbourhood communes or at a regional level through a collection of defence units, as the People's Protection Unit (YPG), Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have successfully demonstrated against Daesh. This dismisses the need for a monopoly of violence to maintain security and order and thus breaks the dichotomy between order and chaos. Rather than a dangerous and chaotic world that needs to be controlled, anarchy is seen as an opportunity to develop self-ruling institutions based on ecology and feminism. This understanding of anarchy follows Bakunin’s writing and develops further with Bookchin’s Hellenic model of democracy. Abdullah Ocalan offers Democratic Autonomy and Democratic Confederalism as a solution for a specific region in the world and does not claim it to be a universal answer for the whole world. However, it may prove useful in South Kurdistan, especially when we consider the internal divisions and tensions.

South Kurdistan is not a homogenous population as most adherents to nation-statism assume. It is divided between different regions with different dialects, religions, cultural practises, histories, identities and ideologies. If it were to be a sovereign nation-state, a solution will still be needed for this diversity. Will the Sinjar Resistance Movement (YBS) be forced to submit to the state? Will the Sulaymaniyah region have to give up its autonomy? Will the parties clash over policies and ideologies?

These are possibilities that may escalate with the centralisation of power, authority and state legitimacy. However, if a political system were to give equal voice and equal power to all subjects under a mutual and subsuming democratic culture, the competition and violence for power can be avoided. The result may be multiple sovereign states, for instance, South Kurdistan and West Kurdistan but with overlapping institutions, societies and agreements. As a result, the YBS can remain a part of South Kurdistan but also maintain its own democratic autonomy to practise self rule with the KCK and other socio-political entities.

This would calm escalations between the YBS and KRG and prioritise dialogue and agreements as has been the case between the diverse multiethnic, multinational communities in the Democratic Federation of North Syria (DFNS).

Self-determination and sovereignty are commonly understood as essential for survival and freedom, but in reality this has proven to be a myth. Many nations and populations in the world, especially those in the developing world, are struggling due to global issues that cannot be resolved by states. There is a global crisis in the state and a global crisis in capitalist modernity. Economic crisis, ecological damage, international migration, war, disease, inequality and social division are just some of the issues emerging from this global crisis. Whether or not South Kurdistan becomes independent, serious thought and discussion needs to be focused towards a democratic, communal, ecological and regional political system which is better suited to deal with the modern crisis we face. This will require us to think outside of the Westphalian box.