A Democratic Method of Deciding Secession

Secession conflicts between a nation-state A and a smaller regional state B within it are often intense and violent; destructive of people, wealth, and order. Even in their unrealized, idealistic, aspirational form or phase, they create fear and economic uncertainty and weakness. The containing state is fighting to maintain not only the resources and territory and energy of the population of the region, but also to maintain the credibility of its authority, and its right to exist in its present form and constitution as the dominant hierarchy in the region. Both states are fighting for their “lives” as self-determining complex organisms.

It has been difficult to fairly apply a democratic voting method to the question of secession, because the containing state A will always perceive it as unfair that a simple majority vote among the population of substate B should allow secession. The entire population of nation-state A has a clear stake in the maintenance of the current larger order that includes B. A without B may very well be ill-defined and infeasible.

On the other hand, the secessionist faction within state B would never accept the result of a referendum asking all of the population of A (including B) whether B should secede. They would say that that method violates the principle of self-determination (that the latent nation B should have a right to.)

This is what I call the Incompleteness Theorem of Democracy: You cannot hold a simple democratic vote to determine who the constituency that can vote should be. An apparent paradox.

But maybe there is a way out. Maybe there is a fair algorithm for holding a democratic vote on secession. I humbly propose such a method here. I believe it would be of great benefit to geopolitical peace if such a method were agreed upon and enforced by an institution like the United Nations.

Secession affects both the containing state A and the substate B proposing to secede. Therefore citizens of both B and of (A-B) should have a say in the question of secession, but the key to the proposed algorithm is to agree that the question means more to the more local group, and that therefore they should have a larger say. This balances the strong right to self-determination with the right of an already determined state to stable continued existence.

The basic form of the algorithm is that a simple yes no question on secession is put to the entire population of A in a referendum. However, each member of B gets 1 vote in the final vote tally, whereas each member of (A – B) gets a fractional vote, with the fractional value being Population(B) / Population(A including B).

Thus the say of a citizen outside of the seceding region is in proportion to how much of A would be lopped off if the secession went ahead.

There is one modification of this algorithm that is necessary. Containing states that are aware of the possibility of secession of a regional substate often use a tactic of flooding substate B with former (A-B) residents, thus diluting any will to secession. China has clearly used this tactic in the disputed region of Tibet, for example. To mitigate the unfairness of this tactic, the voting algorithm should be modified as follows. People who reside within B and who have at least one parent who was born in B, should be the only ones granted the full vote. Let’s label these long-term residents B’ (B prime). The remaining present-day population of B should be granted only the fractional vote that the members of A-B are granted. Also the vote fraction should be adjusted to be Population(B’) / Population(A including B’). This adjustment gives precedence to representatives of the founding members of the regional culture within B.

An additional rule is required. It is essential that the referendum not have mandatory voting, and that populations are not threatened with personal consequences for not voting. The algorithm relies for its fairness on measuring the will of both populations to express an opinion on the issue.

With this algorithm, a containing state A which had a population in A-B’ that were passionate about retaining region B might be able to pull it off, provided the residents of B were only lukewarm to or evenly divided on the question of secession. However if the long-term resident population of B felt strongly that they needed to be a separate nation, they would fairly be allowed to carry this out.

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