Kurdistan and Catalonia are voting on independence. Welcome to the age of secession.


Photo: Ivan McClellan


Controversial referendums on independence are scheduled in Iraqi Kurdistan on Sept. 25 and the Spanish region of Catalonia on Oct. 1. Both referendums place these secessionist regions on a collision course with their central governments and the international community, increasing the probability of conflict. What is the purpose of these referendums, and what is the strategy behind them?

Secession occurs when a region within a state breaks away to form its own sovereign state. There were 55 active secessionist movements around the world as of 2011, and an average of 52 movements per year since 1945. Most have failed to achieve their goal of independence, sometimes coming to an agreement with their central government or simply fading away. Roughly a third have resulted in violence. Indeed, some claim that secessionism is the chief cause of violence in the world today.

he Kurds and the Catalans are pursuing the same overall strategy of secession. Strategically, all secessionist movements are the same: they need to make a change by forcing others to recognize them as independent states. To do so, they engage in “compellence,” getting an actor to do something they would not otherwise do. These tactics vary, from the deployment of violence to civil resistance to electoral competition. Seen from a wide angle, Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan are not unique. They are using the same strategic playbook and employing the same tactics as other movements of their kind.

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