This time of year features many elections, from an unexpectedly competitive New Zealand election to a German election that saw Merkel triumph again. The two I want to focus on are controversial referenda taking the question of independence to people who are being told by central governments that they do not get a choice. The Kurds and the Catalans are both planning independence votes for the coming week: Sept. 25 and Oct. 1, respectively.
The Kurds have the distinction of being the most populous stateless people, living in a mountainous region that stretches across Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. In these countries, the Kurds have experienced oppression from bans on their language to state-sponsored violence and chemical attacks on civilians. Kurds have fought for their rights, recognition as a distinct people and some level of autonomy. Autonomy has gone farthest in northern Iraq, an oil-rich region where Kurds constitute a large majority. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) there has autonomously ruled under the Iraqi government following the U.S. invasion in 2003. The KRG, led by President Masoud Barzani and his family, has been pushing toward independence, and Kurdish successes against ISIS in recent years have significantly raised its profile as a de facto state. Now, Barzani wants a referendum to make the KRG officially an independent Kurdish state — a move that would affect all regional dynamics in the Middle East and reverberate through Kurdish communities elsewhere.
The Catalans have also experienced repression from their central government, mainly under Franco’s dictatorship, and have endured bans on their native language that lasted until Spain’s transition to democracy. The economically formidable and prosperous Catalonia also has a significant level of autonomy and has been pushing for independence for a long time, even holding a non-binding referendum as recently as 2014.
The central governments in Baghdad and Madrid have taken extreme measures to make sure the votes do not happen: Both prime ministers said the referenda must be suspended, and the Spanish Prime Minister called it an “intolerable act of disobedience.” Spain forcibly collected election materials and ballot boxes as well as threatened to take over the region’s finances and arrest as many as 700 mayors, while Iraqi MPs voted to suppress the referendum and fire a governor. In addition, the highest courts of Spain and Iraq ruled that the polls are unconstitutional.
Both regions are relying on their wealth to make them successful should they become independent, and there are legitimate arguments saying these regions should not be independent or questioning the timing of the polls. Though regardless of the deservedness, political timing or chances of success of the independence referenda, the one resounding conclusion in both cases is that the central governments of supposedly democratic nation-states do not like when autonomous regions even consider independence since they undermine the established order and threaten to cut off economic growth coming from wealthy regions, be they in Europe or in the Middle East.