Analysis

From Catalonia to Kurdistan, Referendums Only Bolster Dictators' Power

Throughout history plebiscites have often been tools for dictators to force voters to give up their freedoms while keeping up an appearance of having the nation’s support

Civil Guard officers face a man wearing a pro-independence Catalan shirt outside a polling station,  Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain, October 1, 2017.
Civil Guard officers face a man wearing a pro-independence Catalan shirt outside a polling station, Sant Julia de Ramis, Spain, October 1, 2017. Bloomberg

This article was originally published on October 1, 2017 and republished after Catalonia's regional parliament declared independence from Spain.

Even a short visit to Barcelona and the surrounding Catalonian towns and villages leaves many tourists convinced that this relatively wealthy and successful region of Spain is both culturally distinct and can be a success story if allowed to go its separate way. Such visitors often believe that Catalonia should have the opportunity to vote on independence.

>> Catalan referendum: The latest news

Fewer tourists make it all the way to the Kurdish regions of Northern Iraq, but if anything, the arguments in favor of Kurdistan’s independence are even more compelling. The Kurds – who have suffered decades of bloody repression by their overlords in Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran – have oil, a fierce warrior heritage and the desire to follow an independent pro-Western policy.

But the Catalan referendum taking place Sunday and the Kurdish referendum last week will not lead to independence for either nation, and at least in the short term will almost certainly damage the cause of the Kurds and Catalans.

In Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government, which for over a decade has enjoyed almost total autonomy from Baghdad, is under siege, with its borders and the surrounding air space closed off. Its powerful neighbors – Iraq, Turkey and Iran – are determined to strangle a Kurdish independent state in its cradle, and with the exception of the empty rhetoric of the Netanyahu government, the Kurds currently have no allies prepared to come to their aid.

In Catalonia, the scenes of violence Sunday morning at polling stations, with Spanish riot police sent to prevent the voting, are proof that the central government in Madrid, with the backing of the European Union, will do everything to stop the region from breaking away.

The pros and cons of such a move for the Catalans, and the question whether a majority of the region’s residents really want full independence, are beside the point. Unless they succeed in getting Spain’s parliament to grant them the right to hold an official referendum, these symbolic gestures will remain both divisive and meaningless. But referendums, even when held with the full authorization of parliament, are little more than a snapshot of public opinion and therefore are a very bad way to determine a nation’s fate.

Of four major referendums held in recent years in three countries, none can be said to have settled the crucial issues at stake and arguably have left those nations in more of a muddle than before.

Two successive election victories in the Scottish Parliament for the pro-independence Scottish National Party led to the British government agreeing, despite its staunch opposition to Scotland breaking away from the United Kingdom, to hold an independence referendum in 2014. The result was a disappointment to the nationalists who lost 55 to 45 percent, but despite the promise of then-SNP leader Alex Salmond that the vote would settle the question “for a generation,” the party was already talking a year later about a second referendum, and the matter continues to deeply divide Scotland.

Two years later, the entire U.K. went to the polls in another referendum. This time, a much smaller margin voted in favor of breaking away – 51.9 percent decided that Britain would leave the European Union. Sixteen months later, Britain is even more divided than before over the European question, and most polls show that if the Brexit referendum were held again, a small majority would vote to stay. With less than a year and a half to go, neither Theresa May’s Conservative government nor Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party have put forward a clear plan for how Britain will actually leave the EU and what sort of relationship the two sides will have.

Last year, Italy’s zealous reformist prime minister, Matteo Renzi, launched a referendum to change the Italian constitution and let him push ambitious legislation through the obstructionist Italian senate. It turned out that despite his popularity, the Italians were still afraid to hand their prime minister too much power, and he lost by a devastating 18 percentage points – forcing him to resign and delivering a blow to his agenda.

Four months later, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan would probably also have lost his own constitutional referendum – to give him near-dictatorial powers – but the arrest and intimidation of opponents during the campaigning and fraud during the vote counting helped him eke out a majority of 2.8 percentage points. Erdogan won approval for his sultanate at the price of confidence in the electoral process.

And that’s the point about referendums. On the face of it, they’re the closest thing to absolute democracy. But throughout history they have often been tools for dictators to force voters to give up their freedoms while keeping up an appearance of having the nation’s support. For all the many failings of parliamentary democracy, too often paralyzed by the constraints of coalitions and constitutions and leaving many people feeling unrepresented, it’s still the best system devised by humans to manage their collective affairs and prevent the dictatorship of either individuals or the masses.

Democratic politics, like justice, can be infuriatingly slow with its checks and balances and necessity to build consensuses. The temptation to break that deadlock with a referendum is understandable, but it rarely ever works and usually ends up making things worse.