On 25 September 2017, voters in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and disputed areas controlled by Kurdish forces were given the opportunity to respond ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to the question ‘Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the Region to become an independent state?’ Functioning as an expression of the desire to construct an independent state, the referendum signalled a break with the formal Kurdistan Regional Government position of constructive engagement for greater power and autonomy within a unified Iraq. Meanwhile, on 22 September 2017, the neighbouring population in the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria elected co-chairs for the approximately 3,700 ‘communes’, which form the basis of what is claimed to be a non-state governmental system. In this region of the northern Middle East, therefore, divided by the Iraqi-Syria border and under the influence of two distinct Kurdish movements, two quite different and competing government systems have emerged. One is based on the idea of the nation-state, the other on societal self-organization. The main questions addressed in this contribution is how these two systems of governance differ and what the societal implications are of these differences? Data on the political-administrative practices has been collected on basis of field work in both regions in the period 2015–2017. A main conclusion is that the systems differ strongly in terms of political outlook, with profound implications for the nature of citizenship and inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations.