The world may see a new nation pending the outcome of the upcoming Catalonian independence referendum. The Catalan parliament voted in favor of holding the referendum on October 1. With the backing of their parliament, Catalonians have gained the legal basis required for a binding referendum. The law passed with 72 in favor and 52 against after a long and heated debate stretching over 11 hours with a simple question on the ballot “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent republic?” The law does not require a minimum turnout for the result to be binding, and the Catalonian government will declare independence within 48 hours if the results are in their favor.
This of course has angered the central government in Madrid, with the Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy ordering government lawyers to file a complaint with the state’s constitutional court. PM Rajoy’s deputy prime minister, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, called the move in the Catalan parliament “shameful and embarrassing.”
This scenario is all too familiar to another stateless people seeking self-determination, the Kurds. The Kurds are well known for their resilient fighters, the Peshmerga (“those who face death”) who have pushed back the Islamic State (ISIS) since 2014. They are also well known for their pro-western stance and secular nature. The Kurds have taken in over a million internally displaced peoples and hundreds of thousands of refugees from the conflict in Iraq and Syria.
The Kurds have also set a date to hold an independence referendum just one week before Catalonia, taking place on September 25th, 2017. However, unlike the Catalonians, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has chosen to chart a different course to independence. The KRG’s President Masoud Barzani, whose presidential term officially expired in 2013 and again in 2015 after an extension, is still holding onto power with the reasoning that he ought to be the one to oversee an independence referendum. And unlike Catalonia there is no parliamentary approval because there is no parliament in session. Since 2015, in an effort to address internal political disputes within the ruling party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) barred head of parliament and opposition party Gorran Movement (Change Party) from entering Erbil, the regions capital.
In essence, the KRG has a president who is clinging on to power while self-declaring a state without the approval of parliament. This means only one thing, the Kurdish referendum is non-binding and illegal.
The Kurdish Regional Government is plagued with corruption, nepotism, lack of transparency, and claims to represent a place where freedom of the press is threatened and ruled by two political entities, KDP and its other long standing opponent, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). KRG is also facing economic hardship and is far from recovering, while society lacks basic necessities such as reliable electricity and running water.
Aside from these concerns, unlike Catalonia whose major problem was economic in nature, the KRG is located in a geographically hostile region with enemies surrounding its parameters- ISIS, Iran, Turkey and the many proxies like the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) backed by Tehran.
Additionally Baghdad, the central government, is opposed to the move and Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi stated the referendum is “unconstitutional and illegal.”
If the Kurds wish to attain a state, they must have their house in order before anything else. Postponing the referendum is the wisest choice. The parliament must be active, they must debate and discuss the many issues including the referendum, which may have to be longer than the 11-hour session held in the Catalonian chamber. The Kurds also require a new president with a fair and transparent election. The United States can play a critical role in pivoting the KRG towards the right path and avoid a catastrophe. The Kurds should look to Catalonia; a nation they share much in common with. Through the right approach, the Kurds who have longed for a state -- a right no power can deny -- may too achieve a legal referendum that is able to withstand all opposition.