Both Spain and Iraq have endured painful pasts, but independence votes in both countries are linked to money and power.

The consequences of the independence votes in Catalonia and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, held over a month ago, have evolved into a game of brinkmanship.

On Friday last week, Catalonia declared its independence, after the Spanish government triggered article 155 of the constitution, allowing the central government to impose direct rule on Catalonia, which has been an autonomous region since 1978.

In mid-October the military forces of the central government of Iraq retook Kirkuk from the Peshmerga forces. Kurdish aspirations for independence hinged on the city and its oil reserves, as it would have provided the economic resources for an economically self-sufficient entity.

As the 15th anniversary of the March 2003 Iraq war approaches events in Kirkuk are more important than ever, a reminder that post-Saddam Iraq continues to teeter on the edge of failure.

In pondering how this crisis emerged in Iraq, it is useful to compare why a similar crisis is occurring in Spain.  Both the KRG and Catalonia have experienced past trauma in the guise of Saddam Hussein and General Francisco Franco. Independence in the minds of nationalists seeks to break with this past trauma. 

Neither country has sought to come to terms with their past through a truth and reconciliation process. In Spain, the act of not dealing with the past was innocuously referred to as the “Pact of Forgetting” whereby the society never grappled with the horrors of the fascist period, no doubt contributing to current grievances. 

Whereas Iraq is still a long way from grappling with its past amid the cycles of violence.  

Comparing the Catalan and Kurdish referendums

I have been watching the events unfold in Iraq, my ancestral home, from Madrid, Spain, where I am on sabbatical.  When I discuss with Spaniards the similarities between both countries with they ask me, “can the situations in Iraq and Spain be compared? Surely in Iraq it’s much worse.” 

The referendums on independence were held in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq on September 25 and were followed shortly thereafter in Catalonia on October 1. The close timing naturally led to comparisons.

For instance political columnist Ishaan Tharoor of the Washington Post characterized both votes as “the point of no return.” Comparisons have been made by political scientists, such as Joseph S Nye and Ryan Griffiths, who deems the events as “The Age Of Secession.”

Griffiths’ coinage of an “age of secession” situates the two independence votes among other phenomena such as Brexit or the Scottish independence bid or the less well-known Flemish nationalism, as indicative of an existing wider trend. Unlike Brexit, Catalonia and the KRG are responding to a specific historical trauma, which both countries have yet to come to terms with. Kurdish desires for autonomy and statehood go back to the 1920s, when the British established the Iraq mandate whereas Catalonia sought the same during the 1936-1939 civil war. 

The role of the past

In cultural terms, each region has its own language whether it is Sorani Kurdish versus Arabic, or Catalan versus Castilian Spanish respectively.  Both regions have sought to revive their languages after decades of suppression under Saddam, who ruled from 1979 to 2003 or Franco, who ruled from 1939 to 1975.

In the coverage of the Catalan vote, Franco’s legacy resurfaces. One example from the Financial Times states, “The Catalan secessionists say they are exercising a fundamental right to self-determination and invoke the dark years of dictatorship from Madrid, when Catalan nationalists were locked in jail and their language suppressed.” An article in The Nation invokes “the specter of Spain’s dictatorial past,” and refers to the central government’s measures as “characteristic of the Francoist dictatorship.”

The Kurds of Iraq have also endured a litany of past abuses under Saddam Hussein.  The vote on independence in the KRG invariably invoked the memory of Halabja, a town in Northern Iraq which Saddam Hussein attacked with chemical weapons, killing 5,000, mostly civilians, or the Anfal campaign, an indiscriminate military campaign that targeted local citizens during the final years of the Iran-Iraq War. 

These sentiments are implicated in the traumatic memory of being ruled by a dictator from the capital. The rule of two dictators left traumas that have not been resolved. Independence was sought to represent a clean break from these past legacies. 

What do the politicians want?

While the Kurdish and Catalan populace see their votes as affirming their identity and rectifying past injustices, the political elites, whether in Spain and Iraq or Catalonia and KRG, have more mundane political objectives in mind: money, distractions, and votes.

In terms of money, the votes are a means for both regions to be given a larger share of the national budget. One Kurdish representative said that their referendum was not about independence but “a negotiated settlement with the government of Iraq.” Two prominent academics of Spanish history write, “most Catalans seemed to prefer limited autonomy and a carefully negotiated series of fiscal pacts with the Spanish state rather than outright independence.”

In terms of distractions, the same authors write that the Catalan parties seek “to infinitely postpone actual independence while keeping the Catalan right alive long past its expiration date.”  For the KRG vote, president Masoud Barazani’s official term expired more than two years ago but the referendum, if it had been successfully implemented would have cemented his position in power. His gamble seems to have failed. His resignation suggests admission of defeat. For now.

Finally, all political parties in Iraq as well as Spain, KRG and Catalonia, seek electoral capture and power, and their respective hardline stands on the referendums will rally their bases.

The populace in both regions seek a future that respects their language, culture, and history.  They feel their identity is being suppressed by the successive central governments, whether it be in Baghdad or Madrid. There are ways that this can be achieved without breaking away from Iraq and Spain by engaging in national-level dialogue about the past. 

This requires political elites on all sides to do something they have eschewed so far instead seeking political gain in a game of brinkmanship. Independence votes in both states sought to signal a break with a traumatic past. Instead politicians across the spectrum are leading their people into an uncertain future. 

Perhaps, our age could be described less in terms of secession and more as the absence of political leadership. 

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