An independence referendum is a type of referendum in which the citizens of a territory decide whether the territory should become an independent sovereign state. An independence referendum that results in a vote for independence does not always ultimately result in independence.
An independence referendum typically arises first after political success for nationalists of a territory. This could come in the election of politicians or parties with separatist policies, or from pressure from nationalist organisations.
Negotiations for the terms of an independence referendum may take place between the nationalists and the government which exercises sovereignty over the territory. If terms can be agreed, then the independence referendum can be held with its result binding, and respected by the international community. Independence referendums can be held without the consent of a national or the federal governments, then the international community will rely on several other factors, e.g. were the local people oppressed by the central government or not, to decide if the result can be recognized or not.
Various issues can be discussed in negotiations, such as the date and timing of the poll, as well as voter eligibility. For these instances, common electoral practice is often widely used, although there can be deviations, as seen with the lowering of the voting age for the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.
Other issues to be negotiated include what question or questions should be on the ballot, and what the voting options could be. Independence referendums can offer options of greater autonomy as well as, or instead of, the status quo. They can also put forward other constitutional questions to ballot. The questions that referendums ask may be revised if parties involved in negotiations consider them to be too leading.
Negotiations notably need to address what would make a result binding. For some independence referendums, a simple majority is required for one option. In other cases, a quota can be used, where a certain percentage of the vote or the electorate needs to be in favour of an option for it to be binding.
Successful negotiations can be hard to achieve for nationalists, as governments can be reluctant to give up sovereignty. For example, nationalists planned to hold a referendum in Catalonia in 2014, but met opposition from the Spanish government. As a result, the referendum that went ahead was unofficial and non-binding.
In the event of a vote for independence, there may be negotiations on the terms of secession for the territory from the sovereign state. A declaration of independence for a new state is then made, and international recognition can follow, as well as membership of international organisations such as the United Nations. In cases involving non-binding referendums, this can lead to a unilateral declaration of independence, and therefore partially recognised or self-proclaimed states, like the Donbass status referendums.
In the event of a vote against independence, there may still be a strong nationalist movement and calls for there to be a rerun of the independence referendum. For example, after two referendums in Quebec, the Parti Québécois has continued to raise the prospect of holding another referendum, and the Scottish National Party has said that there should be a repeat of the 2014 referendum if the United Kingdom leaves the European Union.
Past independence referendums
|Proposed State||Year||Former State||Majority for Independence||Independence||Recognition||Notes|
|Chile||1817||Captaincy General of Chile (part of the Spanish Empire)||Yes||Yes||No||Chile would declare independence in 1818 and would secure independence following the Chilean War of Independence.|
|Liberia||1846||American Colonization Society||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Maryland||1853||Maryland State Colonization Society||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Norway||1905||Sweden–Norway||Yes||Yes||Yes||The referendum was on whether voters approved the ratified dissolution of the union between the two constitutional states.|
|Faroe Islands||1946||Denmark||Yes||No||No||The Declaration of Independence was annulled by Denmark|
|Saar||1955||France||No||No||Yes||Territory later transferred to West Germany|
|Cameroon||1958||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Central African Republic||1958||No||No||Yes|
|Republic of the Congo||1958||No||No||Yes|
|Saint Pierre and Miquelon||1958||No||No||Yes|
|Rhodesia||1964||Yes||De facto||No||The majority black population could not vote in the referendum; consequently the result was rejected by the United Kingdom and internationally. This prompted the contested Unilateral Declaration of Independence.|
|Puerto Rico||1967||United States||No||No||Yes|
|West Papua||1969||Indonesia||No||No||Yes||The question asked was whether West Papua wanted to give up its sovereignty to Indonesia. All 1,025 voters unanimously voted "yes" by show of hands.|
|Northern Mariana Islands||1969||United States||No||No||Yes||A majority voted for integration with Guam|
|Bahrain||1970||United Kingdom||Yes||Yes||Yes||The question was whether Bahrainis preferred annexation by Iran or independence.|
|Niue||1974||New Zealand||Majority for associated status||Associated status achieved||Yes||The referendum was on whether Niue should become an associated state of New Zealand. This status is sometimes considered to be independence.|
|Comoros||1974||France||Yes||Yes||Yes||The country declared independence on 6 July 1975, with Mayotte remaining under French control.|
|Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands||1975||United States||No||No||Yes||Only voters in what would become the Federated States of Micronesia voted for independence.|
|Guam||1976||No||No||Yes||A majority voted for an improved status quo|
|Aruba||1977||Netherlands||Yes||No||Yes||Plans for full independence were scrapped in 1994|
|Nevis||1977||Saint Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla||Yes||No||No||Referendum organised by the Nevis Reformation Party but not recognised by the Saint Kitts and Nevis government.|
|Ciskei||1980||South Africa||Yes||De facto||Recognized by South Africa||Like other Bantustans, its independence was not internationally recognised.|
|Federated States of Micronesia||1983||Yes||Yes||Yes||Micronesia became an associated state of the United States|
|Palau||1983||No||No||Yes||Voters approved the Compact of Free Association with the United States|
|Cocos (Keeling) Islands||1984||Australia||No||No||Yes|
|Falkland Islands||1986||United Kingdom||No||No||Yes|
|Kosovo||1991||Yugoslavia||Yes||No||Recognized by Albania|
|Macedonia||1991||Yugoslavia||Yes||Yes||Yes||Independence was achieved in 1991.|
|Nagorno-Karabakh||1991||Soviet Union||Yes||De facto||No||Led to de facto independence|
|Transnistria||1991||Yes||De facto||No||Led to de facto independence|
|Gagauz Republic||1991||Yes||De facto||No||Led to de facto independence. Gagauzia reintegrated Moldova in December 1994.|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||1992||Yugoslavia||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|South Ossetia||1992||Georgia||Yes||De facto||No||Led to de facto independence|
|Tatarstan||1992||Russia||Yes||Yes||No||Tatarstan reintegrated with Russia de facto in 1994, de jure in 2002|
|United States Virgin Islands||1993||United States||No||No||Yes|
|Curaçao||1993||Netherlands||No||No||Yes||A majority voted for restructuring the Netherlands Antilles|
|Bonaire||1994||No||No||Yes||A majority voted for keeping the status quo.|
|Quebec||1995||Canada||No||No||Yes||"No" won by 1.16%.|
|Seborga||1995||Italy||Yes||No||No||Residents voted 304 to 4 for independence. Regarded by most to be a micronation rather than a de facto state.|
|Anjouan||1997||Comoros||Yes||De facto||No||Anjouan remained de facto independent until 2001|
|Nevis||1998||Saint Christopher-Nevis-Anguilla||Yes||No||Yes||62% of voters approved of independence, but a 2/3 majority was required.|
|Puerto Rico||1998||United States||No||No||Yes|
|East Timor||1999||Indonesia||Yes||Yes||Yes||The referendum was organised by the United Nations; independence was achieved in 2002|
|Sint Maarten||2000||Netherlands||No||No||Yes||A majority voted for becoming a country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.|
|Bonaire||2004||No||No||Yes||A majority voted for integration with the Netherlands|
|Saba||2004||No||No||Yes||A majority voted for direct constitutional ties with the Netherlands|
|Curaçao||2005||Netherlands||No||No||Yes||A majority voted to become an Autonomous country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands|
|Sint Eustatius||2005||No||No||Yes||A majority voted for remaining part of the Netherlands Antilles|
|Montenegro||2006||Serbia and Montenegro||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|South Ossetia||2006||Georgia||Yes||De facto||No||The issue was whether South Ossetia should retain its de facto independent status|
|Transnistria||2006||Moldova||Yes||De facto||No||The issue was whether Transnistria should retain its de facto independent status|
|Tokelau||2006||New Zealand||Majority for associated status
but Quorum not reached
|Associated status not achieved||Yes||The referendum was on whether Tokelau should become an associated state of New Zealand. This status is sometimes considered to be independence. 60% of voters approved, but a 2/3 majority was required.|
|2007||Majority for associated status
but Quorum not reached
|Associated status not achieved||Yes|
|South Sudan||2011||Sudan||Yes||Yes||Yes||Independence was achieved on 9 July 2011.|
|Puerto Rico||2012||United States||No||No||Yes|
|Donetsk||2014||Ukraine||Yes||Declared||No||The issue was whether the Donetsk People's Republic should retain its de facto independent status. Only controls a portion of its claimed territory.|
|Lugansk||2014||Yes||Declared||No||The issue was whether the Luhnsk People's Republic should retain its de facto independent status. Only controls a portion of its claimed territory.|
|Veneto||2014||Italy||Yes||No||No||The referendum was conducted online and through self-organized voting booths by a private organization, Plebiscite 2013, without voter verification, and without the cooperation of the Italian national or Venetian regional governments. 89% of residents voted to split from Italy. An official referendum on Venetian autonomy took place on 22 October 2017, with 98% voting in favor of special autonomy for Veneto.|
|Sint Eustatius||2014||Netherlands||No||No||Yes||A majority voted for autonomy within the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but low turnout invalidated the result.|
|South Brazil||2016||Brazil||Yes||No||No||Described as a "Plebisul", the turnout was only 2.91%.|
|Puerto Rico||2017||United States||No||No||Yes||If a majority of voters selected the "Independence/Free Association" option, another independence referendum between those two options would've been held. However, a majority of voters voted for U.S. statehood.|
|Kurdistan||2017||Iraq||Yes||No||No||The referendum also took place in the disputed territories of Northern Iraq.|
|Catalonia||2017||Spain||Yes||No||No||The Parliament of Catalonia unilaterally declared the formation of a Catalan Republic on 27 October 2017. The declaration was not recognized by the Government of Spain which continued to regard Catalonia as part of its sovereign territory and asserted direct control at the beginning of the workday on 30 October. On 31 October 2017 the Constitutional Court of Spain formally revoked the declaration with retroactive effect.|
|South Brazil||2017||Brazil||Yes||No||No||Second edition of the referendum described as a "Plebisul", the turnout was only 1.72%.|
|Bougainville||2019||Papua New Guinea||Yes||Subject to negotiation||Yes||Held between 23 November to 7 December 2019. The vote was not binding and the Government of Papua New Guinea has the final say on what becomes of Bougainville.|
Scheduled independence referendums
|Proposed State||Date||Current state||Recognition||Notes|
|Chuuk||March 2022||Micronesia||Yes||Was scheduled for March 2020, but the Chuuk State Attorney announced that the vote had been postponed.|
- Declaration of independence
- Ethnic nationalism
- Independence movement
- List of irredentist claims or disputes
- List of proposed state mergers
- List of sovereign states
- List of territorial disputes
- Lists of active separatist movements
- Succession of states
- Territorial integrity
- Wars of national liberation
- Harguindéguy, J.-B., Sánchez, E. S., & Sánchez, A. S. (2021). "Why do central states accept holding independence referendums? Analyzing the role of state peripheries." Electoral Studies.
- Juve J. Cortés Rivera (2020) "Creating new states: the strategic use of referendums in secession movements." Territory, Politics, Governance
- "Neverendum referendum: Voting on independence, Quebec-style". BBC News Online. 8 September 2014. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
- Marcin Kosienkowski (2017) The Gagauz Republic: An Autonomism-Driven De Facto State The Soviet and Post-Soviet Review, volume 44, no. 3, pp292–313
- Roth, Christopher F. (March 2015). Let's Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar (PDF). Litwin Books, LLC. p. 90.
In 1995, Giorgio held a referendum, with Seborgans opting for independence 304-4.
- South Sudan backs independence – results
- "In eastern Ukraine, polls close amid allegations of double-voting - CNN.com". CNN. 11 May 2014. Retrieved 30 September 2014.
- "Russia Praises Ukraine's Autonomy Law for Rebel Areas". WSJ. 17 September 2014. Retrieved 30 September 2014.
- "Iraqi Kurds offer to 'freeze' independence referendum result". BBC. 25 October 2017. Retrieved 27 October 2017.
- Catalonia independence: Spain takes charge of Catalan government BBC News, 28 October 2017
- Suspendida la declaración de independencia de Cataluña (in Spanish)
- Lyons, Kate (2019-12-10). "Bougainville referendum: region votes overwhelmingly for independence from Papua New Guinea". The Guardian. Retrieved 2019-12-11. The referendum is nonbinding and the leadership of Papua New Guinea and Bougainville will negotiate, while the PNG parliament will have the final say.
- Mair, John (2019-08-05). "Bougainville agrees with PNG to delay independence vote till November". Reuters. Retrieved 2019-08-05.
- "Bougainville referendum now set to be held on 23 November". Radio New Zealand. 2019-08-05. Retrieved 2019-08-05.
- "Bougainville referendum not binding - PM". Radio New Zealand. 2019-03-11. Retrieved 2019-03-18.
- Sartre, Julien; Doherty, Ben (4 October 2020). "New Caledonia rejects independence from France for second time". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 4 October 2020.
- "Chuuk independence vote postponed as China-U.S. Pacific contest builds". Reuters. 27 February 2020.