On September 18, 2014, Scotland will decide if it should become an independent country. (photo by Scottish Government via Flickr)

What constitutes a legitimate referendum?

Professor Emeritus Lawrence Leduc weighs in

It began with the recent Crimean referendum. Speculation holds that the upcoming Quebec election may lead to a referendum vote, and both Scotland and Catalonia will put their desire for sovereignty to a vote later this fall.

Only three months in and it looks like 2014 is already the year of the referendum.

For some perspective on what constitutes a legitimate referendum and why some are treated as the ‘voice of the people’ while others are disputed, U of T News turned to Professor Emeritus Lawrence Leduc of political science, and author of the book The Politics of Direct Democracy: Referendums in Global Perspective.

It was reported that voter turnout for the Crimean referendum exceeded 80 per cent, with 97 per cent of the voters deciding to secede from Ukraine. Why is this referendum and its results being disputed so widely?

Very likely, the referendum result does reflect something like the majority sentiment of the Crimean population, which is largely Russian speaking and antagonistic towards the new government in Kyiv, which most Western countries (including Canada) have rushed to support.

However, the Western powers have been looking for reasons to discount and delegitimize the referendum outcome, and unfortunately the Russians have given them lots of those, including the haste with which the referendum was called, the short duration of the campaign, the presence of Russian troops, the absence of international observers, tight control of the media, some evidence of voter intimidation and a lack of transparency in the counting and reporting of votes.

Do you think, when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 – a move overwhelmingly supported by the West – it set a precedent for ethnic majorities worldwide to seek independence? Putin for one used this as an argument for Crimea to secede from Ukraine in his speech to the Russian Duma.

Right. The West is rather selective in the examples that it likes to cite. In any case, the concept of precedent has little meaning here. This is not a legal question, but rather a political one.

Why was the recent secession of South Sudan deemed more urgent and acceptable than, say, Catalonia’s longstanding wish to secede from Spain?

I'm not sure that it was more "urgent". But the West saw this secession as a way of bringing an end to some of the violent conflict in Sudan, as well as punishing the government in Khartoum for its oppression of minorities. Catalonia is a rather different case, which groups more logically with Quebec and Scotland than with South Sudan, Timor Leste, or Kosovo (see the next question).

Scotland is heading for a referendum in September to separate from Great Britain. The hot topic of the upcoming Quebec elections is a possible referendum for Quebec to secede from Canada. How do these referenda compare, in terms of legitimacy and reason for concern?

There are many similarities, but a few significant differences as well. The Scottish government has gone to some lengths to secure the support of the Westminster government, at least for the process, if not the outcome. The question wording is straightforward, "Should Scotland become an independent country?", rather than complex, as in the two Quebec cases.

As a result, I think that the situation in the U.K. would be less uncertain if the question passes than it would be in Canada or Spain. The issue of European Union membership creates a contextual difference also. But otherwise, there are a lot of similarities between the Scotland and Quebec cases.

What makes a referendum legally binding? Is there universal agreement about what constitutes a legitimate referendum? If yes, what is it? If not, what are the barriers to defining it?

"Legally binding" is a tricky concept. It has potentially a different meaning inside the country than outside.

Within a country, it generally means whether it is provided for in the constitution and meets whatever requirements are specified there. Switzerland is a good example, with its double majority requirements. Or Australia. In this sense then, the Scottish referendum is not legally binding, because both parliaments would still have to act on the result. Same story in Canada. The 1992 Charlottetown referendum, for example, was not "legally binding".

However, when one moves outside the country, the issue is different. Is the result recognized by other countries or the UN? If everyone concerned were to refuse recognition of the Scottish referendum, for whatever reason, this would have many significant consequences. As, alternatively, would be the case if everyone rushed to congratulate the new country!

Jelena Damjanovic is a writer with University Relations at the University of Toronto.

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