Columns / Discourse / October 4, 2017

Watch Dog: Independence referendums pose questions for democracy

Independence and autonomy are two basic tenets of the democratic principle and recently there has been a plethora of news which bring into question the nature of each. In a controversial move, the people of Catalonia have voted overwhelmingly for independence from Spain. Not long before that, Kurdistan also held a referendum in which 93 percent of voters voted “yes” for Kurdish independence. And in the shadow of Brexit, talks of a Scottish Independence Referendum have been circulating.

The responses of ruling governments have not been friendly: The Iraqi government has threatened military action against the Kurds, the Spanish government deployed riot police to block voters and British Prime Minister Theresa May has stated that the British government will not recognize any proposed referendum for Scottish independence. There has been outrage, outcry and shock around the world at these actions. However, as “undemocratic” as these responses have been, it should not be shocking. Any political revolution, disruption, secession or otherwise radical change oftentimes operates in the margins of the status quo. Of course the Spanish government has an interest in suppressing the Catalan vote. Of course the Iraqi government is opposed to the prospect of Kurdish independence, something they’ve been working to suppress for years. And of course Theresa May has no interest in allowing a Scottish referendum to serve as a political vendetta for Brexit. But just because these responses are to be expected does not mean they are not, in principle, undemocratic.

This article is not concerned with whether or not people necessarily should seek independence. Oftentimes these separatist movements are not, on the whole, the best option. Instead, I want to offer up a couple criteria by which we can examine the validity of these movements and contribute to the overall question, “When do people have the right to seek independence?”

These movements often share similar arguments. Among these: that the nation seeking independence is culturally different from the ruling government and that these differences could be harmful to their compatibility; the nation seeking independence is the victim of oppression, whether social, economic, political or by any other means; the nation seeking independence would be best governed by its own people and that it is impossible for the ruling government to understand its complexities. These are a few basic arguments and they are especially evident in the aforementioned examples of recent memory. It is easy to argue that a Catalan is not a Spaniard, it is even more evident that a Kurd is very different from an Iraqi. However, there is less merit in arguing the cultural differences between the Scottish and the English. While the two may see each other as vastly different, they have long existed in an agreed contract that has made the two less distinguishable, or at the very least inseparable. However, their fights for independence have been the result of certain betrayals and oppressions. The Scottish remained in Britain under the unspoken agreement that EU membership would continue; this was betrayed and now the bid for independence seems to some the only option. The Spanish government’s attempts to roll back on their statute for Catalan autonomy has reignited the cries for independence. And the struggles of Kurdistan are well known and varying. So why is it that the mainstream political landscape views these movements as without merit?

Yes, despite the outcry around the world, secession is still viewed by the mainstream as a form of treason. Last year, when Russia held an event titled “The Dialogue of Nations (a government funded conference for separatist groups around the world), they were quickly vilified for supposedly promoting political division. And certainly the intention of the Russians is questionable. However, why did the media rear its head and snort in the face of separatist movements as a whole?

It is true that some of these movements have more merit than others. Some are more justified than others, and it can even be said that while some are rightly motivated, others are just flat out bad ideas. However, if we are to remain unhypocritical as proponents of democracy, we must acknowledge that any population has the right to express its general will and wish for independence, and that the merits of such a wish are secondary.

Matt Milewski

Tags:  democracy independence referendum watch dog

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