Catalans, Kurds, Given No Other Choice, Announce Referendums

Denied more autonomy by Madrid and Baghdad, the two minorities push for votes on independence.

Catalans demonstrate for independence in Barcelona, Spain, July 10, 2010
Catalans demonstrate for independence in Barcelona, Spain, July 10, 2010 (Rob Shenk)

Both the Catalans and Iraq’s Kurds have announced independence referendums this week over the objections of their central governments.

The two might seem a world away. Catalans have virtually no security concerns. The Kurds are waging a war on two fronts: one against Turkey to the north and another against the self-proclaimed Islamic State to the south.

Yet they have things in common.

Both are economic success stories. Catalonia has only 16 percent of Spain’s population yet accounts for a fifth of its economic output, giving it an economy the size of Denmark’s. Kurdistan has Iraq’s lowest poverty rates and, thanks to its oil reserves, is increasingly self-reliant.

Both have desired more autonomy for years and both have been rebuffed by their national authorities, leaving them with little choice but to press for unrecognized votes on independence.

Not given a choice

One such poll in 2005 found almost all Iraq’s Kurds in favor of breaking away, but that was at the height of the Iraq War. There has been no reliable polling on Kurdish public opinion since, but it is assumed a majority would again vote for independence given the chance.

Catalans are less sure. A 2014 “consultation” — planned as a referendum before it was blocked by Spain — found 80 percent in favor of independence, but only around 40 percent turned out to vote.

Surveys suggest between 40 and 50 percent of Catalans want their own state. That is up from less than 20 percent a decade ago, when the vast majority would have been content with either the status quo or becoming a federal state within Spain.

Just as decades of suppression of Kurdish nationalism has achieved the opposite of unity in Iraq, Madrid’s refusal to recognize a right to Catalan self-determination has given the nationalists there little choice but to seek all-out independence.

Disputed

Neither the Catalans nor the Kurdish areas of Iraq are completely homogenous.

The Kurds want the referendum to be held in the disputes regions of Khanaqin, Kirkuk, Makhmur and Sinjar, which are also populated by Arabs and other minorities. There have been violent clashes between Kurdish and Shia militias there.

Catalonia’s borders are clearer, but many Catalans speak Spanish as their first language. Many also have friends and relatives in the rest of Spain. Catalan businesses operate across the country and plenty of Catalans work for Spanish companies. The economics argue against independence, not in the least because it would mean giving up and then reapplying for EU membership.

(Not) too late

A referendum might take the sting out of the Catalan independence movement, as happened in Scotland.

When a majority there voted against breaking away from the United Kingdom in 2014, it settled the issue. The Scottish National Party, which continues to agitate for secession, was punished by voters in Thursday’s election.

Most Catalans don’t want their own republic. But they do want to make their own decision.

For the Iraqi Kurds, it is probably too late. They have suffered generations of indignity. Turkey’s brutal suppression of Kurdish nationalism and the semi-independence Syria’s Kurds have achieved across the border strengthens them in their conviction that independence is the only way Kurds can ever be masters of their own fate.