Democracy: Does the People’s Will Matter?

Separatist tendencies rumble around the globe as citizens take issue with governments over taxes, religious beliefs and cultural norms, recognition of minority rights or mismanagement. The West cheered such movements during the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. But the United States and the European Union discouraged referenda in two semiautonomous regions where voters chose to break from central governments and form independent nations – Catalonia from Spain and Iraq’s Kurdistan. “The swift crushing of both results raises the question about the stage at which the ‘will of the people’ as determined by the ballot box should be constrained,” explains author and journalist Humphrey Hawksley. The separatist movements expose flaws: elected legislatures not doing their jobs; democracies failing to explain governance or promote the value of order, balance and respect among varying blocs; and government neglect of the rights of sizable minorities. Hawksley ponders expressions of the people’s will and whether overwhelming turnouts or slim majorities matter much if voters fail to understand the systems under their control and focus on extremist views and divisions. Democratic governments require constant vigilance by informed citizens. Hawksley concludes, “The ballot box might legitimize a system. It does not design it.” – YaleGlobal

Democracy: Does the People's Will Matter?

Separatist movements in Kurdistan and Catalonia expose flaws - elected officials not doing jobs, failure to explain governance and neglect of minority rights
Humphrey Hawksley
Thursday, November 2, 2017

Independence through ballot: Catalan nationalists vote for independence, right, as do the Kurds in Iraq. 

LONDON:  In the early 1990s, as remnants of the Berlin Wall were transformed into a tourist attraction, there was a near-unchallenged presumption that governance, through the democratic will of the people, would underpin our future. Germany, once divided by two opposing ideologies, united under the democratic banner and countries that had mostly lived under Soviet control quickly became new democracies. American political scientist, Francis Fukuyama summed up the prevailing atmosphere in his 1989 essay “The End of History,” suggesting that the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution had been reached. Western liberal democracy was universal, the final form of human government.

Historians may come to view October 2017 as a turning point unseating this argument, when the concept of designing policy through the “people’s will” had been stretched as far as it could. The markers are referenda in two different parts of the world where voters in semiautonomous regions chose to break from central governments to form independent nations.

One is the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq. With a population of about 5.5 million out of Iraq’s total of 40 million, Kurdistan has been relatively well-run and peaceful while insurgency raged elsewhere. On September 25th, in a referendum not authorized by Baghdad, Kurds voted by more than 90 percent to break away. The other is Spain’s wealthy province of Catalonia which comprises 16 percent of Spain’s 46 million people, but contributes 20 percent of its wealth. Catalonia’s semiautonomous government held a similarly unauthorized referendum on October 1st. Despite a turnout of 42 percent, more than 2 million, 90 percent, voted for independence from Spain.


In both cases, central governments swiftly intervened. Iraqi troops took Kurdish positions and the government implemented measures to isolate Kurdistan. Within hours of Catalonia making a formal declaration of independence on October 27th, Madrid installed direct rule and sought sedition charges against separatist leaders.

The swift crushing of both results raises the question about the stage at which the “will of the people” as determined by the ballot box should be constrained.

Neither Catalonia nor Kurdistan received support from neighbors or the international community which firmly favors holding together the status quo despite a strong sense among the Kurds and Catalans of being a distinctive people with their own languages, cultures and histories. Their sense, real or not, that their identities are misunderstood or neglected by their central governments is a main driver toward separatism. 

All of this is a far cry from the momentum of the 1990s when Western democracies actively encouraged the creation of smaller states from larger ones, often based on ethnic or cultural lines. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush, hailed the move by three Baltic states – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – to sever ties with the disintegrating Soviet Union, saying that their “democratically elected governments have declared their independence and are moving now to control their own national territories and their own destinies.” In those heady days, independence often took place against a violent backdrop. Croatia’s 1991 declaration, recognized quickly by Germany, was among the prompts triggering the breakup of Yugoslavia. In 2008, as the Yugoslav conflict was drawing to a close, the United States pushed through the independence of Kosovo from Serbia, creating a lasting international rift. Kosovo still has no seat in the United Nations.

In all, during this period, 34 new nations, ranging from East Timor to Moldova and Namibia, were created in processes mostly overseen by the United States, the United Nations and the European Union. In most cases, a newly-democratized nation broke away from a failed authoritarian one. But, a generation on, Catalonia and Kurdistan are attempting to separate from other democracies, thus risking regional and global stability and revealing two specific flaws in the system as it stands.

The first flaw is that the need to hold a referendum comes largely because elected legislatures are not doing their jobs. If they were, a critical mass of citizens would not feel the need to go outside the system. The second is that Western governments have failed to explain fully the pieces that slot together to form their democracies, how the global order is a delicate balance among local sentiments, the nation state and regional power blocs. 

Western leaders, therefore, would be wise to roll back the increasingly messianic use of slogans such as “the peoples’ will.”  When emotional sentiment comes face to face with political pragmatism, failure and resentment are bound to follow. This happened after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the West’s botched sponsorship of the abortive Arab Spring in 2011. Similar disappointments now run through Catalonia and Kurdistan.


As former US President Woodrow Wilson succinctly said: “Democracy is not so much a form of government as a set of principles.”

While democratic principle might have fired Kurdistan’s referendum, the result, if implemented, risked creating more turmoil in the Middle East. Iran and Turkey would not tolerate an independent Kurdistan. Kurdistan also advocates the division of Iraq into three independent, confederated nations, Kurds to the north, Sunnis in the center and Shias in the south. Many areas are mixed and, given Iraq’s history, such a division would lead to further bloodshed.  With Catalonia, the European Union is wary of enflaming similar separatist sentiments embedded throughout the continent. If the EU condones Catalonian separatism, nationalism would increase elsewhere, compounding Europe’s already worrying rise of right-wing xenophobic political movements. 

The EU’s future has already been put into question by Britain’s 2016 surprise Brexit referendum result to separate from the regional power bloc. The 51.9 percent vote in favor of leaving was a wafer-thin majority, yet the “will of the people” is constantly used to justify arguments for an EU exit already damaging the economy. Central to the Brexit debate is Britain’s future trading relationship with the EU indicating that if sophisticated negotiations between highly developed institutions are facing problems, neither Catalonia nor Kurdistan have much chance of operating as successful independent nations. The same applies to other places such as 2014 Donetsk in Ukraine and 2011 South Sudan, where independence referenda have been advocated as a means to address longstanding problems but have prompted or failed to end conflict.

In 1947, the United Nations agreed to a referendum for Kashmir, the divided and disputed territory straddling India and Pakistan, but it was never held. Now, such an election would enflame already heated tensions, risking regional a war. A similar situation is in place for the renegade Chinese province of Taiwan whose 24 million people live as if in an independent nation. The United States has made clear to the Taiwanese government that American support would diminish if any move is made toward an official declaration of independence.  

Catalonia and Kurdistan are warnings that the West must smarten up its act. Democracy, as practiced during the past two decades, has been filled with so many failures and contradictions that few who line up at the polling stations know exactly how it works. Too often, democracy has been used as a lever to open the floodgates of nationalism, racism and religious and ethnic divisions. 

“The people’s will” as championed in voting booths cannot be taken raw. The ballot box might legitimize a system. It does not design it. 

Humphrey Hawksley has written extensively on democracy. His next book Asian Waters: Chinese Expansion and the Shifting Balance of Power will be published in April 2018. 

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