Questions abound in Kurdistan and Catalonia

24 August 2017 - by Quintin Oliver

Two upcoming ‘unconstitutional’ referendums are set to cause controversy next month, as the Kurds and the Catalans go to the polls seeking independence on 25 September and 1 October.

The cases look similar, in that:

  • Each seeks ‘freedom’ from their sovereign states, Spain and Iraq respectively, against a backcloth of dissent, disenfranchisement and resentment, all fuelled by contested linguistic rights;

  • Each has harboured independence aspirations for many decades, each has staged successful but illegitimate or boycotted earlier attempts at democratic decoupling, but only recently have they crystallised their intent in such a way to look distinctly possible this time;

  • Each ‘mothership’ is challenging the legitimacy of the poll and threatening to disrupt or ignore the results. Proponents claim their economic wealth is the real reason the parent wishes them to remain;

  • Each asserts their democratic right to self-determination, with added salience due to well-recorded abuses by previous state dictators;

  • If either or both are successful, considerable regional ripples will resound across their continents

 On the other hand, each is very different, because:

  • Catalonia has little history of political violence for, or against, independence. Kurdistan, meanwhile, has suffered genocide from Saddam Hussein, as well as denied statehood with violence since the First World War;

  • The implications of Catalan independence would be felt constitutionally across the EU (in the Scottish, Belgian, Italian and Basque discourses, to name only a few) but Kurdish independence would raise the spectre of a greater Kurdistan, affecting tens of millions of ethnic Kurds in neighbouring Syria, Iran, Turkey and RoI – the Rest of Iraq;

  • While both have devolved parliaments with considerable powers, the Kurds also have a successful and legal army, currently holding the front line for the rest of the world against Daesh.

The stakes are high in each region, with all parties flexing their political, legal and economic muscles in favour of their desired outcomes.

And, of course, the tool of the referendum as a political consensus-builder is also under scrutiny – should there be a super-majority requirement, a turnout threshold, diaspora voting, a second or third ballot question, international observers and so on.

Remembering Charles de Gaulle’s pitiful regret that "the trouble with referendums is that the voter answers the wrong question", never has the referendum been tested so severely.