"A natural right of any group of people"

I've just come across a very interesting statement from the US Defense Secretary, James Mattis, who was in Erbil yesterday for talks with Masoud Barzani.

Discussing the planned independence referendum for 25th September, Barzani reiterated that the plan is “a solution and not an obstacle”.

“He then briefed Secretary Mattis on the old and modern issues that the people of Kurdistan have had with Baghdad and that no real partnership has ever been accepted by the latter. The President then reassured Secretary Mattis and the accompanying delegation that the referendum would not create any problems for the operations against the terrorists of the Islamic State and that the courage of the Peshmerga forces shall remain unwavering against this brutal common enemy which poses a threat to all of humankind and not only to Iraq and Kurdistan,” reads the press release.

Secretary Mattis stated that he understands the grievances of the people of the Kurdistan Region and also added that such step is a natural right of any group of people.

However, he said the announcement of independence vote last June was unexpected for the government of United States, especially due to the military operations against the terrorists of the Islamic State."

Basnews - 22 August 2017

With the proviso that this is taken from a press release by President Barzani's office, this is a remarkable statement with far-reaching consequences.


Those of us who believe that President Trump is an embarrassment to the world probably have good reason to wonder how seriously we should take any statement from the current American administration; but not every aspect of their foreign policy is bad.

One of the positive changes after Trump came to power, an improvement on Obama's position, was a marked increase in military support—both in terms of equipment and troops—for Kurds in both Iraq and Syria, despite these two groups having very different political ideologies. In simple terms, I think the American administration believed that the Kurds offered the best hope of defeating ISIS, and that this mattered more to them than anything else. They probably didn't think much about the political solutions that would need to be developed after ISIS are defeated. Perhaps it wouldn't be too cynical to point out that the Americans have always been more eager to take military action than work out what to do afterwards.

That explains why Mattis said that the US was taken by surprise by Barzani's announcement in June this year. But the Trump administration have now had a good couple of months to think about it, and I think they have to be commended for standing behind the principle of democracy and self-determination. That's exactly what the world has a right to expect from America.

The big question is whether the US will be consistent. To say that holding a democratic referendum on whether you want to remain part of an existing state is "a natural right of any group of people" means that the US Administration must also respect the result of the Catalan referendum a week later. We should remember that both the Kurdish and Catalan referendums are unilateral referendums which are being held without the consent of the governments of their respective currently-recognized states, Iraq and Spain.

Also, if the US are consistent towards both the Kurds and the Catalans, then it is quite likely that the UK Government will feel obliged to follow suite, as it usually does. The critical thing in the formation of a new state is not the declaration of independence, but whether other countries then recognize you as an independent state. Having the US on your side is a tremendous advantage because of the considerable influence they have over so many other countries.

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Will Catalunya vote for independence?

In my opinion the two most significant political events this year are going to be the independence referendums in southern Kurdistan on 25 September and Catalunya on 1 October.

The reason I'm writing this post is because what I've seen in the media about Catalunya is only a part of the truth, and isn't providing us with an accurate picture of the way Catalans are likely to vote. For example, this is what was reported by the BBC yesterday:

How strong is the appetite for secession?

"It is hard to say," says the political scientist [Professor Arias-Maldonado] from Málaga University. "According to polls, secessionists are now around 41% of Catalans - numbers have been going down for some time. Around 49% are against it.

"These data come from the Catalan public polling body. How will the terrorist attack affect this situation? Who knows? But my bet is - not very much and if it does, it will reinforce the unionist side."

BBC - 20 August 2017

To get a more accurate picture, I think it's worth showing a few graphics from the CEO poll itself, which can be downloaded from here:


The first graphic does indeed show 41.1% support independence and 49.4% don't. The graph at the bottom shows that the figures were just about equal a year ago, but in fact the figures haven't really changed all that much in the last three years, fluctuating in the range between 40 and 50%.


The second graphic shows the breakdown by party. Junts pel Sí and CUP supporters almost entirely in favour; the PSC, PP and Cs supporters almost entirely against; and CSQP supporters split (their preferred option is a federal Spain, but that isn't on offer, which explains why they are more evenly divided).


But, as we should all know, even though people will express an opinion in an opinion poll, this doesn't always translate into actual votes at the ballot box. Even with the unusually high turnout in the Scottish Independence referendum of 2014, only 84.6% of the electorate actually voted. So it would have been possible to win that vote if only 42.4% of the total electorate had voted Yes.

According to the CEO poll, the turnout in the Catalan referendum would be a still-respectable 67.5% (roughly equivalent to recent Westminster general elections: 65.1% in 2010, 66.4% in 2015 and 68.8% in 2017) and that Yes would win a very substantial victory by a margin of nearly 25%, as shown in the graphic below:


I should perhaps explain that a "blank vote" is a valid vote for "none of the above" (a number of countries have long had this option, and in my opinion it should be available here too) and a "null vote" is the equivalent of a spoilt ballot paper here.

The reason for the apparent discrepancy is that those who want independence are very much more determined to get out and vote for it that those who don't. Of the supporters of the two parties in favour of independence, only a tiny percentage will abstain (3.1% and 1.9%) but the abstention figures for supporters of the three unionist parties are 39%, 28.8% and 28.3%, as shown in this final graphic:


Now of course, opinions could change between now and the referendum. But it's now less than six weeks away, and I don't think things will change much.

This means that after the referendum things will get very messy, with different people claiming different things. We can be sure that the leaders of the Catalan Government will point to the substantial margin of victory as justification for declaring independence.

We can be equally sure that the Spanish Government will say (as they have said all along) that the vote is illegal and unconstitutional. But I have no doubt that they will also claim that the reason Yes won was because those who abstained did so not because of the level of political apathy common to almost all western democracies, but because of a principled refusal to take part in an illegal and unconstitutional vote. That will be true, but only to a small extent, and we need to understand why that argument is a fallacy.

True, the unionist parties may not recognize the legitimacy of the vote; but the insurmountable problem they face is that a majority of their supporters clearly do recognize the legitimacy of the vote. As things stand at present, they are caught between a rock and a hard place. If a majority of their supporters were to boycott the election, they might well be able to claim that Yes only won because of the low turnout. But if 64.2% of PSC supporters, 55.9% of Cuitadens supporters and 66.1% of PP supporters defy their party leaders and go out to vote in the referendum (even if most of them vote No) then Mariano Rajoy—Prime minister of Spain and leader of the PP—is going to look pretty silly if he claims that the result is not democratic ... two-thirds of his own party supporters in Catalunya will not have agreed with him.

I've no doubt that he'll try it anyway, because the official referendum results won't be broken down by party allegiance. So he'll think that he'll be able to get away with it because people won't understand the underlying maths, and he'll hope that influential world leaders will commit themselves to rejecting the result on the basis of a specious argument before their research assistants get round to doing that maths.


Forewarned is forearmed. Those of us who want to see Catalunya become independent need to make the case that democracy, the will of the people expressed at the ballot box, is more important than the niceties of the Spanish constitution or any political inconvenience that a vote for independence might cause for other countries.

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