What to expect from the referendums in Iraq and Spain

What to expect from the referendums in Iraq and Spain

Referendums are beginning to become a mechanism for governments to try solving controversial issues in societies. It is difficult to suggest, however, that they are effectively resolving differences of opinion. They often end up with very close results, such as “50 plus versus 50 minus” and create further polarization in the societies they are held.

Recent examples, such as the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, the “Brexit” referendum in the United Kingdom in 2016 and the Turkish referendum in 2017 on creating a presidential system in the country have produced more questions than answers to the issues they tried to address.

In Iraq, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is planning to hold a referendum on Sept. 25, to ask the question of whether the people living there support independence. In Spain, the regional government in Catalonia is planning a similar referendum with the same question on Oct. 1, too. These two referendums are likely to create further controversies in Iraq and in Spain. It is inevitable, therefore, to question whether they will solve the questions they intend to or create further confusions, tensions and polarizations.

In Iraq, the constitution was approved by the public in October 2005. This constitution created a federal system, legally establishing the KRG in the northern part of the country. There were unresolved issues, such as the distribution and sharing of revenues from exports of hydrocarbon resources, the finalization of disputed administrative borders, particularly in and around Kirkuk. The latter was addressed in article 140 of the constitution, which envisaged a referendum on the issue until Dec. 31, 2007. 

This referendum, depicted as a legal obligation in Iraq’s constitution, never took place. The KRG, in the meantime, has started to exploit oil and gas fields in its self-defined territory and unilaterally to export the produce. Attempts to resolve the disputes between Erbil and Baghdad failed since there is no reasonable dialogue between the two anymore.

It is very likely that the Sept. 25 referendum in the KRG will result with the support for independence. This result, however, does not necessarily create an independent state of Kurdistan overnight and split Iraq. It will give stronger political leverage to Erbil in its quest to resolve the disputed controversial issues in Iraq, which have not been resolved with the current constitution and which have been neglected by the government in Baghdad. The peace, stability and integrity of Iraq can be guaranteed through meaningful, responsible and intelligent negotiations due to follow.

In Spain, Catalonia has been asking for identity, which is constitutionally prevented. Although Catalonia passed and adopted the “Draft of New Statute of Autonomy for Catalonia of 2005” with a view to reforming Catalan self-government, the Spanish Constitutional Court ruled 14 articles of that Statute unconstitutional and rewrote several others. Currently, the local government in Catalonia argues that the region cannot perform self-government functions under the modified Statute.

The vote to take place on Oct. 1, does not guarantee strong support for the idea of an independent Catalonia. Public opinion polls suggest that those who are for independence are around 44.3 percent, whereas those who are against it are around 48.5 percent. Even if the vote results with support for independence, the low margin of difference will not necessarily give strong legitimacy to an independent Catalonia. It may give, however, as in the case of the KRG, a more confident political leverage to the local government in its quest for further devolution of power and stronger self-government functions.

Baghdad and Madrid, instead of looking at the referendum processes by the KRG and Catalonia as a manifestation of democratic rights and freedom, consider them as a challenge to unity and territorial integrity. Threats from both capitals, therefore, create tension with the likelihood of further escalation in the aftermath of the referendum dates, if not a forceful intervention before.

It would be much more constructive, however, to look at those processes as an opportunity to enhance democracy based on freedom of expression and opinion. When it is allowed, democracy can be the best mechanism in resolving controversial issues.