One Week, Two Votes For Independence, And An Uncertain Future

Catalonia and Kurdistan vie for independence, while Western countries continue to reject the status quo for the populist fringe

Independence supporters march during a demonstration in downtown Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017 — (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

Independence supporters march during a demonstration in downtown Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017 — (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)

There has been a flurry of democratic intrigue across the world over the last few weeks. Two referendum initiatives have been put forth within the last week; one in the Catalonia region of Spain, and the other in Kurdish controlled region of Iraq. We will dive into what these referendums mean for the people involved, and for their respective regions in general:

The Catalonian Referendum

An independence referendum was held on Sunday in Catalonia, an area in northeastern Spain that includes Barcelona, amid clashes between pro-independence activists and police brought in from the central government. Turnout was only around 42.3 percent, but of those, about 90 percent voted in favor of independence. Most Catalonians boycotted the election, however. Catalan’s president, Carles Puidgemont- who called the vote- is nevertheless declaring the results enough for an official declaration of independence.

Catalonia has a long history of autonomy; there have been independence attempts since at least the 12th century. This time around, independence supporters’ gripes have a populist tone not dissimilar to Brexit proponents. Catalonia is Spain’s most prosperous region, yet it has not been immune to the country’s prolonged economic downturn; youth unemployment, over 30 percent, is a particular concern. Catalonians also gripe that they have to pay a disproportionate amount of taxes that are then spent elsewhere in Spain.

To be sure, the referendum efforts are as short-sighted as they are illegal. The costs to build an independent state would far outpace what Catalonians are paying to Spain now. Moreover, the European Commission has confirmed that if Catalonia were to leave Spain, it will also leave the EU, its biggest market, and investor. The result would, therefore, be economically catastrophic.

Unsurprisingly, the referendum was roundly denounced by the central government of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy. Spain’s constitutional court also declared the vote illegal under the country’s constitution. When the Catalan government did not back down, Mr. Rajoy took harsher steps, sending in thousands of police officers to dismantle the vote. The police used incredibly harsh tactics to disperse voters, firing rubber bullets and batons. Over 900 injuries have been reported, most of them from innocent civilians.

Rajoy’s response to the referendum was both egregiously heavy-handed and unnecessary. Between the backing of the courts, the popular opinion in Catalonia and Spain against the referendum, and the EU’s rejection of the vote, the referendum was never going to result in anything concrete. Instead, he now faces a hardened opposition to Spanish rule in Catalonia, not to mention ire from the rest of Spain and abroad.

He also played right into Mr. Puidgemont’s hands. Understanding that he will never be able to get an actual independence declaration out of this exercise, Mr. Puidgemont wanted to win the battle of public opinion. Even in Catalonia, most saw independence efforts as counter-productive and disruptive. After seeing Spanish police beating innocent civilians, even anti-independence Catalonians are now angered at the central government. Spain remains intact for now, but far fewer people are enthused about it.

The Kurdish Referendum

Tensions are much higher in Iraqi Kurdistan after their own independence referendum last week. Results there were much more convincing: 90 percent voted in favor, with a 72 percent turnout. However, this referendum will also not lead to a new republic, as virtually no countries recognize the referendum as legitimate.

The Kurds, a traditionally nomadic ethnic group comprising about 30 million people have been denied a statehood for centuries. After the dismantling of the Ottoman empire by Western powers, lands traditionally inhabited by the Kurds were divided up into what is now present day Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq.

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They are usually treated as second class citizens where they live. They have also been persecuted, most notably by Saddam Hussein, who attacked the Iraqi Kurdish region with chemical weapons in the late 1980’s after they opposed his rule. Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed Western-backed autonomy in the form of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) since the first Gulf war, and have used their oil revenue to create a relatively stable enclave in Iraq. Their military forces, known as the peshmerga, were instrumental in driving back Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.

This referendum, like the Catalonian one, faced stiff opposition from the central government but also drew retaliation from foreign powers as well. The Iraqi government banned all flights into Erbil, the capital of the KRG. There have been calls from other Iraqi groups to send military forces towards Kurdistan. The US (who have supported the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq and Syria), the UN Security Council, and other Western nations all condemned the vote, fearing it will cause further destabilization in a region just beating back the onslaught of Islamic State.

Turkey and Iran, fearful that this referendum might draw similar calls from Kurds in their territories, also responded forcefully. Iran stepped up military exercises on its borders with Iraq and conducted joint drills with the Iraqi military. Turkey, who has been fighting a Kurdish insurgency for decades, threatened to close its border with Kurdistan, including access to the pipeline through which Kurdish oil flows to markets (oil prices went up as a result.)

The KRG president, Masoud Barzani, has been careful to play both sides. He has called the vote a declaration for independence among his supporters but has only referred to it as more of a poll among his international backers.

There is a case to be made for Kurdish independence. They have been a people without a homeland for centuries, and ought to have a right to some form of sovereignty just as any stateless people (Israel has actually backed Kurdish independence using this reasoning). The KRG has also proved it is capable of governing, keeping Kurdistan relatively stable in the turmoil Iraq faced after Saddam’s death (not a high bar for governance, but a passing grade given the region.) The Kurdish peshmerga have fought bravely to rid the area of IS, and seem able to develop into a military capable of defending its own territory. Having saved Western troops the trouble of fighting IS themselves, the Kurds would be forgiven if they thought they would receive support from the international community for their efforts.

Iraqi displaced people plead for food during an aid distribution in Khazer camp for the displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq — Dec. 17, 2016 (AP/Manu Brabo)

Iraqi displaced people plead for food during an aid distribution in Khazer camp for the displaced in Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq — Dec. 17, 2016 (AP/Manu Brabo)

The present day reality makes the prospect of independence grim, however. A full-on cessation from Iraq would bring renewed civil war in the country, and probably thrust Turkey and Iran into the fighting as well. The economic sanctions that can be levied on Kurdistan could alone cripple the region. The KRG is also broke and corrupt. It has been hit hard by the fall in the price of oil, its main export. The KRG faces debts of upwards of $22 billion and has had trouble providing basic services such as electricity.

Mr. Barzani is also hardly a Kurdish George Washington. His family has a long history of suppressing criticism and human rights and is suspected of embezzlement of KRG funds. With elections set for next month, Mr. Barzani seems more interested in distracting Kurds from his faults than to actually lead an independence movement.

A resolution is crucial to ensuring stability. Mr. Barzani will be keen to press the Iraqi government for more decentralized powers (and money), but given the lack of international support, he doesn’t have much leverage. Whether for or against Kurdish independence, it seems all Iraqis will be awarded with renewed uncertainty.

Who Decides What A Nation Is?

Both of these developments raise important questions regarding the nature of sovereignty. Traditional diplomacy dictates that entities can declare themselves nation states if they are recognized as such by other nation states. It is not enough for a bunch of people to get together and say they are a country (Americans in the South keep trying though); other countries have to agree that said group are indeed a country.

This is what makes the prospect for Kurdish, and (particularly) Catalonian independence so unlikely. Nations’ decision to recognize a people as independent and deserving of their own state is an entirely political decision. The consideration of who deserves to be independent and who doesn’t takes a backseat to immediate interests, particularly for countries with a stake in the matter.

Referendums can be a good democratic rule for enacting a particular social policy (see Switzerland) but it provides more questions than answers when it is used to declare independence. For example, what happens to those who vote against independence? An objective view of the low turnout in Catalonia would render such a vote entirely unrepresentative of the population. But, what would be the fate of the 10 percent who voted against separation from Iraq if Kurdish independence did go forward (and the 28 percent who didn’t vote at all)? Would they have to live in a country they did not choose to be in?

The Yes-No nature of a referendum also makes it tricky to use as a gauge of people’s real desire to form their own country. People might favor independence as a matter of principle when asked in such a binary manner but may not support the incredibly difficult process of doing so in reality. Many people’s decisions on such a crucial question are also influenced by their current temporal realities. Some may feel a separation from their current government is warranted if they are not providing what people are expecting of them. It seems a follow-up question to independence referendums ought to be required:

Do you favor independence even if it could have negative socioeconomic ramifications in the short-term?

A “Yes” vote there would be much more indicative.

Global Outlook // Europe / Politics / Spain / World