Referendums in Catalonia and Kurdistan turn divisions into crisis

Ultimately these votes were about forcing the carve-up of states that had adopted democratic constitutions following a long dictatorship

A man is grabbed by civil guards in Sant Julia de Ramis, near Girona, Spain, Sunday, Oct. 1, 2017. Scuffles have erupted as voters protested while dozens of anti-rioting police broke into a polling station where the regional leader was expected to show up for voting on Sunday. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)
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The Catalan and Kurdish votes for independence have had a twin impact on their respective regions.

Facing global rejection for strikingly similar reasons, organisers defiantly pressed on.

Both exercises were ruled illegal by the courts in the run-up and fell far short of normal polling conditions.

Ultimately these votes were about forcing the carve-up of states that had adopted democratic constitutions following a long dictatorship.

In a letter Antonio Tajani, the president of the European parliament, warned Catalans that the outcome of Sunday’s exercise would have no standing within Europe. “Respecting the rule of law and the limits it imposes on those in government is not a choice but an obligation,” he declared.

Contrast the referendum in 2014 when Scotland voted to remain part of the United Kingdom. The British parliament authorised the referendum and the national political class mobilised to defend the union. The decisive intervention was that of former British prime minister Gordon Brown who thundered his way around Scotland, campaigning for a No.

The No vote won but if it had been Yes there is no doubt that a negotiated break-up of the British state would have been completed over a number of years. And if the exercise was repeated, by the same process, in future there is no doubt a different result would mean that Scottish independence would happen.

Colm Toibin, the novelist who has lived in Barcelona for decades, observed this weekend that there was no national input to the Catalan vote. Why, he asked, did Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish prime minister, not campaign on the independence question in Catalonia? Why did Madrid offer coercion rather than argument?

One reason identified by Toibin was the language barrier. Yes, all Catalans speak Spanish but the national tongue has been systematically reduced to a secondary role in the region — a deliberate policy decision by officials in the autonomous government. “The success of the policy on language is the main reason why Spanish politicians have not been visiting towns and villages in Catalonia, and not speaking on radio or TV to make the case against the referendum,” he wrote. “Catalonia, for them, has become terra incognita.”

The same observation could be made of the Kurdish region in north-eastern Iraq, perhaps even more fundamentally. Politicians in Baghdad just do not have “reach” within the three northern provinces.

Yet the immediate scenes surrounding the two successive polls in the Middle East and Europe have perpetuated divisions. On Sunday riot police dressed in protective armour stormed schools and village halls across the Catalan territory as residents fought to exercise their vote.  Kurdish voters held up ink stained fingers and there were plausible suggestions that - far from being barred - many had voted multiple times.

No one yet expects Barcelona’s El Prat airport to be shut down as the countries surrounding Catalonia seek to constrain the euphoria for independence. There are no tanks exercising on the Franco-Spanish border as a warning against going over the brink.

The outcome of the ballots is not sufficient to compensate for the flawed nature of the vote. Thus both exercises cast their regions into open-ended crisis. In the immediate aftermath it is unclear how the politicians will resolve their differences.

If independence truly is on the cards for either entity in the future, it is unlikely that this is a starting point.