On Monday, the regional government in Iraqi Kurdistan plans to go ahead with a referendum on independence. Six days later, the regional government in Catalonia intends to hold its referendum on secession from Spain.
In both cases, most outsiders would prefer these votes weren't happening at all. Readers of Today's WorldView may remember our earlier coverage of their growing calls for autonomy and self-rule. In March, Carles Puigdemont, the president of the regional government of Catalonia, told me that Catalans simply sought the same opportunity as Scots to determine their own future. In June, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the leading Iraqi Kurdish representative in Washington, said that her region's referendum would be nonbinding — and was really about winning "a negotiated settlement with the government of Iraq," not outright independence.
But as both votes now loom, the stakes have risen alarmingly.
Spanish authorities raided the offices of the Catalan regional government Wednesday, seizing millions of ballot papers and arresting at least 14 senior Catalan officials. The move prompted protests in various cities, including Barcelona, the seaside Catalan capital, where some residents banged pots and pans in outrage as night fell. Even Spanish soccer club Barcelona, a global institution and a bastion of Catalan cultural pride, waded into the fray, issuing a statement defending Catalonia's right to self-determination.
While the region's leadership is adamant that the referendum will go ahead — and that a "yes" vote would swiftly be followed by a declaration of independence — the Spanish government views the referendum, as well as the steps taken by secessionist Catalan politicians to pave the way for a vote, as illegal. Earlier this month, when the Catalan parliament approved legislation authorizing the referendum, Madrid denounced the vote as a "constitutional and democratic atrocity," and it was later suspended by Spain's constitutional court.
"If you care about the tranquility of most Catalans, give up this escalation of radicalism and disobedience," Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy warned his Catalan counterparts on Wednesday.
Catalan officials were defiant. "Spain has de facto suspended the self-government of Catalonia and has applied a de facto state of emergency," Puigdemont said in a statement.
"The issue that is at stake today isn’t the independence — or not — of Catalonia," Raül Romeva, Catalonia’s foreign affairs chief, told reporters in Madrid, "but democracy in Spain and the European Union." Senior European Union officials, though, have distanced themselves from Catalan demands and say that an independent Catalonia would not be guaranteed a place in the continental bloc.
Of course, it's not just Catalonia itself that has much to lose. The region accounts for 16 percent of Spain's population and, as Politico tabulated, a fifth of its economic output, a quarter of Spanish exports, and over half of new startup investment in 2016. The prospect of giving up Catalonia's economic power could be as scary in Madrid as are jail sentences in Barcelona.
The deepening impasse is the result of months of political jockeying and brinkmanship. Critics of the Catalan secessionists say they have steamrollered their opponents at home to engineer a dramatic confrontation with Madrid. Critics of Madrid say the Spanish government enabled this situation by refusing to engage at all with secessionists, who came to power in local elections, claim a popular mandate and have been clamoring for years for Madrid to consider the region's longstanding nationalist aspirations. Both sides cast the other as "anti-democratic."
Tensions are also rising head of the planned Monday referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. As my colleagues Tamer El-Ghobashy and Mustafa Salim reported this week, the Kurdistan Regional Government, while much admired in the West, is finding itself increasingly alone in its independence bid.
Like its counterpart in Madrid, Iraq's Supreme Court on Monday ordered the suspension of the referendum after the Iraqi parliament had declared it unconstitutional. That's to be expected, but the Iraqi Kurds haven't won much sympathy among their other neighbors, either. Both Turkey and Iran, home to sizable ethnic Kurdish minorities, have come down hard against the referendum in recent weeks. U.S. officials urged the KRG to reconsider, arguing that now was not the time to consider independence when the war against the Islamic State is yet to be won. The White House issued a statement last week describing the referendum as "provocative and destabilizing."
Kurdish officials have repeatedly stressed that they want the vote to be seen not as a provocation, but rather as symbolic affirmation of what a vast majority of Iraqi Kurds want. “We will ourselves not initiate a clash or a fight,” Rowsch Shaways, a former deputy prime minister of Iraq and the head of the Kurdish delegation negotiating with Baghdad, said to my colleagues. “We are pledging dialogue and a peaceful solution.”
But the facts on the ground suggest conflict is likely. The disputed status of Kirkuk, an oil-rich province with a mixed Kurdish, Arab and Turkmen population that the KRG has included in its referendum, has already flared into violence. The government in Baghdad ordered the ouster of Kirkuk's Kurdish governor, and there are fears of future potential clashes between the Iraqi military and the Kurdish peshmerga fighters who currently guard the provincial capital.
"These actions have emboldened Kurdish nationalism. This in turn has increased the anxieties of Arab leaders in Baghdad," noted academics Morgan Kaplan and Ramzy Mardini. "With the stakes of the vote now perceived to be greater than before, both sides believe they cannot afford to concede. The dynamics are akin to a dangerous game of chicken, with no certainty of which actor, if any, will swerve first."
Catalonia may be thousands of miles from Kirkuk — and enmeshed in a vastly different political context — but the same dynamic seems to playing out there. And while many in both regions may celebrate their right to cast a ballot, it's far from certain that the outcome will be a happy one.