What Is a Referendum? Who Decides?


Last week brought two passionate and dramatic popular votes for independence, in Iraqi Kurdistan and in Catalonia, Spain. Everyone, even those who dismissed both votes as illegal and meaningless, called them national “referendums.” (New York Review of Books)

What is a nation?

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Text Set.

“Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?” asked a referendum.
Map of Catalonia by Rastrojo, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-4.0,3.0,2.5,2.0,1.0
On October 1, 92% of respondents answered YES.
Illustration of the estelada, the unofficial flag of Catalonia, by Huhsunqu, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-2.5


“Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the Region to become an independent state?” asked a referendum.
Map of Iraqi Kurdistan (lighter shades indicate more disputed regions) by Spesh531 and TUBS, courtesy Wikimedia. CC-BY-SA-3.0
On September 25, 93% of respondents answered YES.
Illustration of the unofficial flag of Kurdistan courtesy Wikimedia. Public domain

Discussion Ideas

  • The author of the great New York Review of Books editorial says the terms “referendum” and “plebiscite” are “hopelessly tangled.” What do those terms mean? Do you think they’re tangled?
    • The definitions of both terms are indeed pretty tangled.
      • We define a referendum as a “direct vote in which voters are asked to accept or reject a proposal.”
      • We define a plebiscite as a “direct vote in regard to an important public question.”
    • Both a referendum and a plebiscite are direct votes by the entire electorate (not their representatives) and are not elections (there are no candidates). Both are almost always “yes” or “no” decisions.
      • A more precise definition of referendum sometimes clarifies that such a vote is one that judges the popularity of an already-proposed policy or amendment.
      • A referendum may also offer voters the chance to initiate a policy or amendment, not to take immediate action. This definition applies to the referendums in Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia, Spain.
      • The term has also traditionally been limited to state or provincial votes, not national issues. This definition applies to the referendums in Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia, Spain.


  • The NYRB article says that democratic nation-states dislike referendums and plebiscites. But referendums and plebiscites are clear examples of direct democracy—why would democracies dislike them?
    • Democratically elected leaders may fear referendums “confess a failure of representative democracy.” In other words, if the people are directly deciding on issues of national or regional importance, their elected representatives are not really doing what they were elected to do.
    • The author proposes that “globalized social media is transforming the whole ballot initiative question. A ceaseless torrent of organized demands for change is spreading the habit of direct democracy, which is already bypassing traditional legislatures.”


  • In covering the Catalan and Kurdish referendums, the Washington Post calls this “the age of secession.” Where else have specific regions voted to secede from their national governments?
    • In addition to Catalonia and Iraqi Kurdistan, eight regions have held major independence referendums in the past 10 years alone:
      • Puerto Rico. In June 2017, Puerto Ricans were asked if they wanted to become a state of the United States, have an independent and free association with the U.S., or maintain their current territorial status. 97% voted for statehood.
      • South Brazil. In October 2016, voters in the states of Parana, Rio Grande do Sul, and Santa Catarina were asked if they wanted independence from Brazil. 93% voted yes.
      • Donbass. In May 2014, voters in the oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk (which together form the region of Donbass) were asked if they wanted independence from Ukraine. 89% in Donetsk and 95% in Luhansk voted yes.
      • Venice. In March 2014, voters in Veneto were asked if they wanted independence from Italy. 89% voted yes.
      • Scotland. In September 2014, voters in Scotland were asked they wanted independence from the United Kingdom. 55% voted no.
      • Sint Eustatius. In December 2014, voters on the Caribbean island of Sint Eustatius were asked if they wanted independence from the Netherlands. 66% voted yes.
      • South Sudan. In January 2011, voters in South Sudan were asked if they wanted independence from Sudan. 98% voted yes.
      • Tokelau. In October 2007, voters on the South Pacific island of Tokelau were asked if they wanted independence from New Zealand. 64% votes yes.



  • The NYRB article says “Everything the Spanish government is getting wrong in 2017, the British got right [with regards to the Scottish independence referendum] in 2014.” How?
    • The United Kingdom recognized Scotland’s right to secede. Spain does not recognize the right of Catalonia to even hold a referendum.
    • British leaders actively, legally campaigned against the referendum. Spanish authorities violently suppressed voters during the Catalan referendum.
    • Both British and Scottish leaders worked together in advance to prepare the next steps for either outcome. The Spanish Constitution does not allow for a vote on the independence of any Spanish region; the national government refuses to engage with any “illegal” referendum. The NYRB editorial calls this “legalistic bullying.”


  • The central factor in referendums is who has the right to call them,” says the NYRB article. What do you think?
    • Do you think a state or province has the authority to declare independence from the nation-state to which it belongs? Do you think the reasons for secession matter? Think about this failed secessionist movement.
    • Do you think a smaller political unit, such as a county, has the authority to secede?
    • Do you think a larger political unit, perhaps encompassing parts of more than one nation-state, has a right to declare independence? Kurdistan traditionally stretches not only through northern Iraq, but through parts of Iran, Syria, and Turkey. How would a referendum on greater Kurdistan be held?
    • Do you think the nation-state (or states) from which independence is being sought must “approve” such referendums? Formally, the Kurdish and Catalan referendums were both illegal because neither the Iraqi nor the Spanish government licensed them.
    • Is a simple majority enough to support independence?
      • A “supermajority” is often required for key proposals (such as amendments to the Constitution). What would you put the threshold percentage for an independence referendum?
    • This terrific New York Times article offers some advice for those seeking a referendum on independence:
      • “The first rule: Portray your cause as a struggle for democracy and human rights first, national self-determination second. This helps get around the fact that there is no legal right, under international or often domestic law, for secession.
        “Also, get the great powers, or at least the United States, to compel, coerce or bribe the government you’re trying to break from into going along. If the breakup isn’t mutual, it’s almost impossible to peacefully resolve, so better to pretend everyone wants it.
        “Ideally, seek independence from a ruler who is unelected and friendless. And hire lobbyists to persuade world leaders that your bid will promote their interests and values, presenting it as an easy choice.
        “And make sure no one asks whether citizens from the rest of the country might want to keep their borders intact, which would reveal that any referendum excludes many of the people affected by the result.”



New York Review of Books: Referendums: Yes or No?

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

New York Times: Catalans and Kurds Discover the Hard Truth About Secession

Nat Geo: What is a nation?

Nat Geo: Scots Free?

One thought on “What Is a Referendum? Who Decides?

  1. Si les autres “Communautés autonomes” d’Espagne organisaient un “contre-referendum” pour se prononcer si oui ou non elles estiment légitime celui de la Catalogne, on obtiendrait une mesure de la démocratie différente de celle de la propagande née autour de ce referendum Catalan qui ne fait qu’opposer une moitié des électeurs contre les autres dans l’égoïsme intellectuel le plus absolu…

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