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.
The articles on specific referendums are linked with dates in the table on past referendums.
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 governments, but their results are usually ignored by the international community.
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.
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|
|Liberia||1846||American Colonization Society||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Maryland||1853||Maryland State Colonization Society||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Norway||1905||Sweden and 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||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Central African Republic||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Chad||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Comoros||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Republic of the Congo||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Dahomey||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Djibouti||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|French Polynesia||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Gabon||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Guinea||1958||France||Yes||Yes||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote led to independence.|
|Ivory Coast||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Madagascar||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Mali||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Mauritania||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|New Caledonia||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Niger||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Saint Pierre and Miquelon||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Senegal||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Upper Volta||1958||France||No||No||Yes||Referendum on the new French constitution. A no vote would have led to independence.|
|Rhodesia||1964||United Kingdom||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||United States||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 Kitts and Nevis||Yes||No||No||Referendum organised by the Nevis Reformation Party but not recognised by the Saint Kitts and Nevis government.|
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||1979||United Kingdom||Yes||Yes||Yes||Referendum organised by the Saint Vincent Labour Party under Milton Cato.|
|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||United States||Yes||Yes||Yes||Micronesia became an associated state of the United States|
|Marshall Islands||1983||United States||No||No||Yes|
|Palau||1983||United States||No||No||Yes||Voters approved the Compact of Free Association with the United States|
|Palau||1984||United States||No||No||Yes||Voters again 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 1993.|
|Nagorno-Karabakh||1991|| Soviet Union
|Yes||De facto||No||Led to de facto independence|
|Transnistria||1991|| Soviet Union
|Yes||De facto||No||Led to de facto independence|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||1992||Yugoslavia||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|South Ossetia||1992||Georgia||Yes||De facto||No||Led to de facto independence|
|United States Virgin Islands||1993||United States||No||No||Yes|
|Puerto Rico||1993||United States||No||No||Yes|
|Curaçao||1993||Netherlands||No||No||Yes||A majority voted for restructuring the Netherlands Antilles|
|Moldova||1994||N/A||Yes||Yes||Yes||The issue was whether Moldova should retain its independent status|
|Bonaire||1994||Netherlands||No||No||Yes||A majority voted for keeping the status quo.|
|Sint Maarten||1994||Netherlands||No||No||Yes||A majority voted for keeping the status quo.|
|Saba||1994||Netherlands||No||No||Yes||A majority voted for keeping the status quo.|
|Sint Eustatius||1994||Netherlands||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 Kitts and Nevis||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||Netherlands||No||No||Yes||A majority voted for integration with the Netherlands|
|Saba||2004||Netherlands||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||Netherlands||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||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.|
|Tokelau||2007||New Zealand||Majority for associated status||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.|
|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||Ukraine||Yes||Declared||No||The issue was whether the Lugansk 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 regarding article 140.|
|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 peacefully 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.|
Scheduled independence referendums
|Proposed State||Date||Current state||Recognition||Notes|
|New Caledonia||4 November 2018||France||Yes|
|Bougainville||15 June 2019||Papua New Guinea||Yes||The date is only tentative as the island has to meet certain criteria before the vote can happen.|
- "Neverendum referendum: Voting on independence, Quebec-style". BBC News Online. 8 September 2014. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
- 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.
- Roberts, Hannah (2014-03-21). "Venice votes to split from Italy as 89% of the city's residents opt to form a new independent state". Mail Online. Retrieved 2016-11-10.
- "89% of Veneto residents vote for independence from Rome". RT. 2014-03-23. Retrieved 2016-11-10.
- "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
- Willsher, Kim (19 March 2018). "New Caledonia sets date for independence referendum". The Guardian. Retrieved 20 March 2018.
- "Ball rolling on Bougainville referendum". Radio New Zealand. 2016-05-22. Retrieved 2016-05-30.