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Troubling referendums abroad

Troubling referendums abroad

Though democracy often means the 'will of the people', none of the political thinkers have yet categorised the kind of will that will eventually matter! The two referendums – the first in Iraqi Kurdistan and the second in Spain's Catalonia – recently highlighted a disquieting global trend. The merits and demerits of the Kurdistan and Catalonia votes apart, it is apparent now that exclusivist ideologies are no more a political taboo. It is important to draw a line between actual and attempted secession, which would violate the Constitution of Spain and Iraq. Spain and Iraq, each in different ways, have failed to make this distinction. The government of Spain, acting on judicial orders, sent national police to block the Catalans' nonbinding referendum vote, sometimes with the use of force. The government of Iraq, on the other hand, is punishing the regional government of Kurdistan for its referendum with a flight blockade that substantially hampers its economy. These retaliatory actions may seem necessary to the two national governments to assert their sovereignty. But that's a mistake – both in terms of principle and in practice. A constitutional democracy is supposed to respect its citizens' self-expression. And the government that's strong enough to tolerate substantial dissent is more likely to survive in the long run by staying in one piece. Though, both Catalonia and the Iraqi Kurdistan have autonomy, the referendum indicates different stories altogether—the people in these two places want to be totally independent from their existing countries. But, is it the output of an exposure of national economies to the global economic pressures? The answer is always a 'yes', as anticipating the erosion of longtime social and political beliefs, communities have started looking for leaders, parties and ideologies that promise to protect them from unsolicited change. Communities have firm beliefs that their national leaders are too distant from their local problems and only the creation of some political unit could address their particular needs. That happened in both Iraq and Spain, where the communities had called for recognition of their bona fide political status. But, the nations, from which they sought to secede, virtually crushed their demand. In Iraq, Kurds had been seeking for a land of their own, but the Kurdish population is dotted across four countries — Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey — making them a minority everywhere. Despite enjoying considerable autonomy from Baghdad, the Kurds do not appear to be sacrificing their hope of freedom. As a result, the Kurds seem to have lost their credibility everywhere: while the Iraqi government has shut down airports in their region, the Turkish government, which considers its Kurdish separatists a terrorist group, has condemned the vote — fearing it will inspire its own restive Kurdish community.

Even the governments in Damascus and Tehran had rejected the ballot for fear of triggering similar moves by their Kurdish populations. On the other hand, with a distinct history stretching back to the early Middle Ages, many Catalans think of themselves as a Nation, separate from the rest of Spain. This feeling is fed by memories of the Franco dictatorship that attempted to suppress the Catalan identity. And, it is often reflected even in the football matches between Spain's top football clubs - FC Barcelona and Real Madrid. However, Catalans and Kurds have many similarities: Both the communities considered themselves as separate nations, voted but denied official independence through referendums and tried to negotiate for more autonomy from their capitals but had always been rebuffed. Both the communities have telling success stories too. While Catalonia has only 16 per cent of Spain's population it accounts for a fifth of its economic output, Iraqi Kurdistan has the country's lowest poverty rate and is self-reliant with its abundant oil reserves. But, there is a big difference, too! While a majority of Catalans actually oppose leaving Spain, the vast majority of Kurds do want their own state. The cases of Spain and Iraq, however, raise the question of whether a liberal central state can override calls for self-determination at the sub-national level and still remain liberal. No one can deny that allowing such movements to succeed has some serious implications. It would not acceptable for the world if the entire regional maps would be redrawn, with a reapportioning of resources and power. On the other hand, repression is not a useful answer in the modern world. That will only encourage the most extreme elements, triggering a cycle of action and reaction that will only make matters worse. Nevertheless, the price of freedom looks to be high for both populations who are less likely to succeed in the present global scenario.

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