It was 1791, in the middle of the French revolution, when the good people of the picturesque papal town of Avignon (located in what is now southeastern France), found themselves facing a question. For centuries, Avignon had been under the authority of the popes, ever since it had once been their home back in the 14th century. The popes, however, had long returned to Italy. Yet Avignon had since spent centuries as something of strange papal colony in the heart of France, with stronger ties to Paris than to Rome, and a sizable chunk of its population chafing under Vatican rule.
But the French Revolution was upon them. New ideas, like sovereignty of the people, and the need for the consent of the governed were taken up with zeal by those who found themselves controlled by an inconvenient crown. The people of Avignon would decide who ruled Avignon! The citizens organized a vote, and more than 100,000 of an estimated 153,000 voters sided with joining the Republic. And thus, the first real secession referendum, according to the handful of historians who study these things, was born. Shortly thereafter, the first secession referendum took an ugly turn.
The pope, through one of his cardinals, voiced only disdain: the notion that “everybody [would be able] to choose a new master in accordance with one’s pleasure” struck him as patently absurd. Amid the tension, a handful of those 50,000 or so formerly papal-state citizens who weren’t so happy to suddenly be French lynched a pro-France administrator, and were subsequently executed in the former papal palace, in what came to be known as the bloody massacres of La Glacière. The region was brought to the brink of civil war, and only restored to calm when Napoleon Bonaparte became Consul of France, in 1799.
When voters in Crimea go to the polls today to vote in a referendum to determine their nationality, they’ll be the latest participants in a procedure with a long, tricky history. Born out of the ideals of the French Revolution, strengthened by Wilsonian notions of self-determination, the secession referendum, at its best, is meant to serve as the ultimate expression of democratic will — the fairest way to determine the fate of a region and its people. But this high-minded concept has a lengthy history of being manipulated by leaders toward their own ends, or, as in Avignon, pushing a tense situation over the edge into bloodshed.
There’s something about the referendum that has made it a sort of gold standard in democracy — one that can confer legitimacy on decisions that would seemingly otherwise never pass muster, says Matt Qvortrup, professor at the University of Cranfield in Britain, the author of Referendums and Ethnic Conflict, and perhaps the world’s foremost historian of the subject. “It’s incredibly powerful as a political tool,” says Qvortrup. “To argue against a referendum is almost like arguing against democracy.”
Even Hitler paid his respects to idea: he annexed Austria in 1938 via plebiscite (see the form the ballot took below: you’ll notice the circle for “Ja” (yes) is placed front and center, while “Nein” is distinctly smaller and shoved off to the side).
Illustration A: ballot paper for the Anschluss Plebiscite: The box on the left shows an empty ballot paper. The box on the right shows a sample where “you must put your cross.” (Courtesy: Matt Qvortrup)
Remarkably, even in the 1930s, when Germany was laying claim to half of Europe, those regions that had decided their own fate in post-World War I referendums — like Nord-Schleswig, which, with its larger German-speaking minority, still voted itself part of Denmark — were mainly left alone. “Even somebody like Hitler found it very difficult to go against what had been established,” Qvortrup says.
Even from its earliest days, the popular referendum has been a convenient instrument for manipulation by the architects of great-power politics.
Take the 1857 referendum that created Romania, in the wake of the Crimean War, which unified the territories of Moldavia and Wallachia. It was held at the request of the British, who, at the time says Qvortrup, typically “weren’t too keen on referendums.” But a push for a vote on Romanian unity proved a convenient excuse for curbing the influence of Britain’s archrival, Russia, while maintaining the moral high ground. Napoleon III (himself no enthusiast of democracy) eagerly supported the series of 1848 referendums that unified Italy, which his uncle, Napoleon I, had more or less treated as a vassal state — not because he was eager for Florentines and Tuscans to have their say in world affairs, but because a united Italy could be a stronger rival against the Austrians.
“There’s that kind of undertone of moralizing, at the same time as there’s realpolitik,” says Qvortrup.
The French, historically, insisted on self-determination when it came to territorial transfers that would be favorable to France, historian Johannes Mattern wrote in 1921, but “refused to acknowledge any voice or opinion to those who [they] want to conquer against their will, or to any section of the Kingdom which for some reason or other might wish to sever its former or forced connection to France.” That is, of course, until Charles de Gaulle wanted to rid himself of Algeria, against the wishes of about one million French settlers there. On the other side of the Atlantic, the United States accepted Texas when it voted to join the union; when it attempted to vote itself out again 16 years later, along with Tennessee and Virginia, the United States government was less obliging.
A poorly designed referendum — usually one that involves no prior negotiations on terms and minority rights — can be worse than no referendum at all: for an example, look to the 1973 referendum on Northern Ireland’s sovereignty, which was boycotted by the minority Catholic population, which knew it was bound to lose. The province vote overwhelmingly to stay in Britain — but with just 58 percent of voters participating — and the region was sent spiraling ever-deeper into the Troubles.
The surreal spectacle of Russia sending troops into mainland Ukraine just hours after claiming at the United Nations, to be upholding the Crimeans’ “right to self-determination” offers us a hint that today’s referendum may not live up to the democratic ideals of its originators. Of course, we know how things in Avignon ended. Here’s hoping in 200-plus years we’ve learned some lessons since.