From Kirkuk to Curitiba: The Politics of Rich Regions’ Referenda

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Written by Jason Starr

Between September 25 and October 22, residents of Iraqi Kurdistan, Spain’s Catalonia region, the Brazilian states of Paraná, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul, and Italy’s Lombardy and Veneto provinces voted for increased autonomy from their central governments. While the referenda enjoyed varying degrees of legitimacy, participants in each voted overwhelmingly for greater home rule.

In explaining the causes for this recent phenomenon, observers have noted that the regions that voted for increased autonomy are wealthy compared to their nations as a whole. As a result of their relative wealth, these regions generate more revenue for their central governments than they receive in return for local expenditures, provoking resentment among their populations that they are subsidizing poorer, less productive regions.

But economic explanations for the wave of recent autonomy referenda ignore a more salient trend regarding the political context in which each vote took place. In each case, the central government’s unpopularity, internal scandal, or uncertain success in future elections resulted in widespread political discontent that referendum organizers sought to exploit. As a result, recent independence referenda in Iraq, Spain, and Brazil—and provincial referenda on greater fiscal autonomy in Italy—were borne more of political opportunism than of a legitimate desire to redress economic grievances.

Kurdistan, Catalonia, South Brazil: The Myth of Economic Viability

The relative wealth of each autonomy-seeking region is certain. Iraqi Kurdistan, for instance, has a higher standard of living, lower poverty rates, and a higher per capita GDP than Iraq as a whole. Catalonia accounts for a fifth of Spain’s GDP and tax revenue, but receives only 14 percent of the country’s budget. Similarly, southern Brazil accounts for 16 percent of national GDP, but receives back only 20 percent of the tax revenue it sends Brasília.

Yet, despite their relative prosperity, independence would leave these regions poorer overall. Iraq’s Kurds rely on pipelines through Turkey—which vehemently opposed the Kurdish referendum—to export oil, which accounts for 80 percent of Iraqi Kurdistan’s GDP. An independent Catalonia would lose tax-free access to EU markets in which most of the region’s exports are consumed. Indeed, the prospect of a Catalonian exit from the EU in the wake of its referendum caused over 2,000 businesses in the region to flee to other EU hubs. And the southern Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul declared bankruptcy in November 2016, owing $16 billion to the Brazilian government. Contrary to many observers’ claims, these regions offer poor economic justification for independence.

The Political Opportunism of Autonomy Referenda

Political opportunity arising from weak or embattled national leadership offers a more reliable explanation than economics for each region’s bid for more autonomy. In Iraq, Shiite prime minister Haider al-Abadi faces national elections in 2018 amid claims from some Iraqi Sunnis and other Arab leaders that he is too compliant with Iran, and is unable or unwilling to govern inclusively with Iraq’s Sunnis. Iran and some Iraqi Shiites, on the other hand, believe he is not compliant enough. Low oil prices have caused a deep recession across Iraq, ripening the environment for general political discontent. Finally, Iraq’s federal government has relied heavily on Kurdish security forces to reclaim northern Iraqi territory lost to the Islamic State since 2014, increasing Kurds’ potential leverage over Baghdad in the months before their September 25 referendum.

Catalonian leaders sensed a similar opportunity to capitalize on Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s unpopular and crisis-stricken government. Rajoy narrowly retained his premiership in November 2016 despite his Popular Party winning only 137 out of 350 parliamentary seats—the lowest level of parliamentary support for a government since Spain’s return to democracy in the 1970s. Rajoy’s popularity reached its nadir in July when he became Spain’s first leader ever to testify in court regarding a corruption scandal implicating members of his own party. This embattled position provided Catalonian referendum organizers a window in which to portray their October 1 plebiscite as a more attractive alternative to remaining part of Spain.

Southern Brazil’s referendum on October 7 took place weeks after a prosecutor indicted President Michel Temer for obstructing justice in relation to a corruption scandal for which he was also indicted in June. Meanwhile, a sweeping, three-year corruption investigation into Petrobras, Brazil’s state oil company, has consumed dozens of Brazil’s political and business elite—including its past two presidents. Amid these scandals, Temer has been unable to pass an austerity package designed to lift his country out of its worst recession ever. With his approval rating in the low single digits and political discontent rife across Brazil, southern secessionists seized the moment to call their referendum.

The Italian Outlier: Different Goal, Similar Motive

Veneto and Lombardy provinces fit a similar economic profile as Iraqi Kurdistan, Catalonia, and southern Brazil. The two provinces contribute a combined 30 percent of Italy’s GDP but only 25 percent of its population. Yet their referenda on October 22 were the only ones that did not poll voters on whether they wanted to secede—only whether to negotiate “further forms of autonomy” with Rome. Since the votes did not offer a choice of secession, Italy’s constitutional court confirmed their legality, making them the only recent autonomy referenda to receive central government approval.

Despite their more limited aims, the Veneto and Lombardy referenda, like those elsewhere, were motivated primarily by the political aims of their organizers: provincial officials belonging to the Northern League party, which has advocated for northern Italian independence since its founding in 1991. With national elections due in 2018 and populist, anti-establishment parties like the Five Star Movement gaining ground on Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, holding nonbinding autonomy referenda in Veneto and Lombardy provided the Northern League an opportunity to galvanize its electoral base. While ostensibly undertaken as a basis for negotiating greater regional autonomy, the primary value of the Italian referenda was to consolidate the League’s pre-election support in two of Italy’s wealthiest and most populous provinces.

Lessons from Rich Regions’ Referenda

Independence-seeking regions’ political motivations for their recent referenda serve as a cautionary tale for both the regions themselves and the countries to which they belong. National leaders whose territories include provinces with restive populations would do best to avoid political turmoil that could convince those regions that secession is compelling or likely to succeed.

Luckily for such leaders, however, the Iraqi and Spanish responses to the Kurdish and Catalonian referenda suggest that a swift and decisive central government response can quash post-referendum euphoria and even bolster public perception of their leadership. In light of this, the recent wave of recent autonomy referenda instructs that prosperous regions can most effectively seize upon their central government’s vulnerabilities by seeking redress for grievances through negotiation—not by holding inflammatory secessionist referenda that might only undermine more pragmatic aspirations.

About the author: Jason Starr is a manager of state and city government partnerships at Dataminr, a technology company, where he advises and trains federal, state, and city government agencies on the use of public information to improve their crisis response capabilities. Previously, he was a Presidential Management Fellow at the U.S. State Department from 2010-2015. He served in the Department’s Operations Center, as a desk officer in Washington covering Iran and Middle East, and as a reporting officer in the UAE covering politics and economics in Iran and the Persian Gulf states. His opinions are his own and do not reflect those of his present or prior employers.