Reason must prevail in crises following illegal referendums

Turmoil in independence-seeking areas of Spain and Iraq could have been avoided through negotiations, although constitutions can never be ignored

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 04 October, 2017, 4:18am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 October, 2017, 4:37am

Crises in Spain and Iraq over illegal referendums in independence-seeking areas could have been avoided. National and regional governments should have been discussing frustrations and looking for solutions. Instead, there has been violence and intimidation and the foundations of democracy are threatened. The only hope for ensuring calm and stability are talks grounded in mutual respect and a willingness to admit mistakes and find ways to overcome them.

The people of the northeast Spanish region of Catalonia and Kurds living in Iraq’s north have every right to express their opinion; that is what the free speech enshrined in their constitutions is about.

‘Hundreds injured’ as police clash with voters in bid to block Catalan referendum

But the laws of the land are also clear on separatism, determining that votes like those in Catalonia on Sunday and Iraq’s Kurdish region last week are illegal. Such legislation is essential for the unity and stability of a nation, which is why authorities, judges and foreign governments were so worried.

Madrid was right to try to stop the referendum but, in some areas, police used excessive force to make arrests and seize ballot boxes. The ugly images of people being pulled by their hair and an injury toll of more than 900 have tarnished Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and strengthened the hand of his rival, Catalan President Carles Puigdemont. The “yes” vote for independence was more than 90 per cent, although just over 40 per cent of the electorate cast ballots. Catalonia has a distinctive language and culture and is Spain’s wealthiest region and some Catalans complain the central government treats them unfairly. But under the 1978 constitution, like some other regions, they already had a large measure of autonomy and talks were always an option to deal with grievances.

Kurds had the same choice for their autonomous region, but the weakness of the government in Baghdad and the war with Islamic State made dialogue difficult. Emboldened by the successes of their US-backed soldiers against IS fighters and the wealth of vast oil and gas resources, Iraqi Kurd leaders pushed ahead with their referendum, despite the objections of the central government and neighbouring Iran and Turkey, which fear Kurdish separatism within their borders. The overwhelming vote of support has been met with the severing of air links, threats to trade and Iran mobilising tanks on its border with Iraq, heightening tensions.

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Constitutions can never be ignored; provisions have to be respected and upheld. Fragmentation can take root and spread, which is why the European Union is so closely watching events in Spain and Iraq. Reason and dialogue have to prevail so that potentially dangerous situations can be peacefully resolved.