Troubling referendums in Iraq and Spain

The exposure of national economies to global economic pressures has triggered domestic backlashes worldwide. The primary expression of anxiety triggered by the relentless pressure of globalization has been populism. Sensing the erosion of longtime social and political certainties, communities look for leaders, parties and ideologies that promise to protect them from unwelcome change, to protect their identify.

Another manifestation of the demand for security and stability is self-determination. Communities conclude that national leaders are too distant from their daily concerns and seek the creation of a political unit that better matches their particular needs. In recent weeks, two communities have called for recognition of their status and voted for secession and independence. In both cases, the nation from which they seek to secede — and their neighbors — have rejected the demand. Unfortunately, the call for greater expression and autonomy will not be squelched. Central governments must do more to accommodate those demands without undermining sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Late last month, 93 percent of the Kurds in northern Iraq voted for independence. Kurds have long sought a land of their own, but the Kurdish population is scattered across four countries — Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey — making them a minority in each. Kurds already enjoy considerable autonomy from Baghdad, but that appears to have only whetted their appetite for independence. The vote has no legal effect, but Kurdish officials claim that it obligates the president of the Kurdish region of Iraq, Massoud Barzani, to negotiate for independence.

The response by all other governments has been negative; none have recognized the outcome. The Iraqi government has shut down airports in the region, and threatened to shut down the oil pipeline that runs through the region and provides Kurdistan with 90 percent of its revenue. The Turkish government, which considers its Kurdish separatists a terrorist group, has condemned the vote — fearing it will inspire its own restive Kurdish community. The governments in Damascus and Tehran have also rejected the ballot for fear of triggering similar moves by their Kurdish populations.

A week later, the people of Catalonia in Spain made a similar plea for self-determination, casting 90 percent of their ballots in favor of secession. The Spanish government declared the referendum illegal and tried to stop the vote by force. They partially succeeded — and in so doing, helped make the Catalan case that they are repressed. King Felipe VI of Spain called the vote “irresponsible” and said the Catalonian authorities “have placed themselves outside the law and democracy” in a rare direct intervention in the nation’s politics. The president of the regional government, Carlos Puigdemont, said there would be no “traumatic split” and that “there is no button to push for independence.”

Catalans, too, face resistance not only from Madrid but from other European governments who fear the unleashing of centrifugal forces in their own countries. Despite calls by the Catalans for European mediation, the EU has declared the issue an “internal matter” and is keeping its hands off.

Outsiders recognize the dangers in allowing such movements to succeed. National borders aren’t neat and ethnic communities straddle many of them. Secession threatens not only the country in which the votes are cast, but its neighbors too. Entire regional maps could be redrawn, with a reapportioning of resources and power. That is for many governments intolerable. And anyone who thinks the prospect of war is distant need only remember the convulsions and bloodshed that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

A similar, and likely worse, bloodbath would result if the Kurds follow through on their demand for independence. The flames would reach from the Persian Gulf to the outer reaches of Europe. The Iberian Peninsula is unlikely to self-destruct, but the protests and the pressure could invigorate other violent forms of expression.

The governments in Iraq and Spain — along with others around the world — face a difficult but essential task: respecting regional differences and providing autonomy without either angering majority populations elsewhere in the nation (and prompting a backlash) or encouraging more demands for power on the part of newly empowered groups (or others that seek the same rights). Local particularities must be acknowledged, honored and accommodated, but that must be done in ways that do not compromise the integrity of the state.

There is no single formula for success and the devolution of power is always difficult. Still, repression is not the answer. That will only encourage the most extreme elements, triggering a cycle of action and reaction that will only make matters worse.