06 October 2017

The voters are restless

Alabama is not the only place where a significant election happened in the last couple of weeks.  Here are three cases where votes carry implications reaching beyond the countries in which they were cast.

Catalonia:  The Spanish government is doubling down on its efforts to suppress Catalonia's independence movement.  Leading figures from the region are being hauled into court to face accusations of sedition, while King Felipe VI (who, like the British monarch, is supposed to be an apolitical figurehead rather than an actual ruler) has condemned Sunday's independence referendum.  Catalonians are not backing down; infuriated by the government's brutal police crackdown during the referendum, which injured over 800 people, a protest and general strike on Tuesday drew 700,000 participants, almost a tenth of Catalonia's total population.  The head of the region's government, Carles Puigdemont, has threatened to declare independence within days.

It's hard to overstate the magnitude of the Spanish government's blunder in resorting to violence.  While the ballots cast and counted show 90% support for independence, the disruption caused by the police attacks prevented so many people from voting that the result can't be considered a true reflection of the popular will; polling beforehand showed less than half of Catalonians favoring independence.  Since the government insists the referendum was illegal, a better course (as a commenter here pointed out) would have been to do nothing, simply declaring that it would not recognize the results.  Given the polling, a peaceful vote might well have delivered a majority against independence, as the Scottish referendum in 2014 did, and laid the whole issue to rest for the foreseeable future.  As it is, the brutality doubtless turned many Catalonians against Spain.

There's ample risk of further escalation, given that both sides have used rhetoric which will make it hard to back down.  The European Union is useless, with European leaders, as usual, showing more concern for order and legal technicalities than for justice (with some exceptions) -- a response which has been well noted in Catalonia.

Kurdistan:  On September 25, the Kurdish autonomous area in northern Iraq held a referendum on full independence.  Unlike in Spain, although the Iraqi government opposed the vote, it was unwilling or unable to use force to try to suppress it.  Turnout was over 78%, and 93% of votes cast favored independence.

In this case, the result could hardly have been otherwise.  Iraqi rule has been a bitter experience for the Kurds, especially during the regime of Saddam Hussein, whose "Anfal" campaign in 1988 used mass deportations, concentration camps, and outright extermination to thin out the Kurdish population.  Estimates of the death toll range from 50,000 to 180,000.  Moreover, the Iraqi state is an artifact cobbled together by British imperialism less than a century ago, containing three groups (Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Arabs) who have no particular sense of common identity nor any reason to feel loyal to that state.  In both Iraq and Syria, Kurdish militias did a huge share of the fighting against Dâ'ish (ISIL), and naturally feel all the more right to the lands they defended and liberated with such courage.

Besides Iraq, large Kurdish populations live in Syria, Iran, and especially Turkey.  The governments of those countries, fearing that Iraqi Kurdistan's referendum will embolden their own Kurdish subjects, have reacted with hostility and vituperation (but one Middle Eastern country has been supportive).  The US, despicably, has dismissed Kurdish independence as illegal and an additional headache in a region already brimming with complex problems -- but some within the government are dissenting.  I've already argued that the Kurds deserve our support.

Germany:  Angela Merkel's re-election as Chancellor in September came as a surprise to those who were convinced that the influx of refugees from Syria during her tenure had rendered her hopelessly unpopular.  In fact, Germany's economy has generally been doing well, and the refugee issue is not so dominant in German politics as outsiders seem to assume.  Even so, Merkel's party, the conservative Christian Democrats, lost seats in the Bundestag and will need to form a coalition to govern.

More dramatically, the nationalist AfD (Alternative für Deutschland, or Alternative for Germany), got 13% of the vote and won seats in the Bundestag for the first time, becoming the third-largest party there.  In many cases, the use of the term "far right" in reference to European nationalist and anti-EU parties is simple ignorance or sloppiness, but the AfD believes in German superiority, supports military conscription, and has been plausibly accused of anti-Semitism.  That doesn't mean, of course, that the nearly six million Germans who voted for the party hold those views; they basically represent the segment of the population for which refugees and immigration are an overriding issue.  Germany is smaller than Montana and has 82 million people, and for most of its history has been ethnically homogenous.  Like most Europeans, Germans naturally view large-scale immigration quite differently than Americans do.  But the rise of such a party in Europe's dominant country (and the world's fourth-largest economy), which has spent decades establishing itself as a stable liberal democracy and utterly repudiating the ghastly atrocities of the Nazi period, is an alarming development to say the least.


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