Department of Political and Social Sciences

Ion Pagoaga on Secession Crises and Party System Change in Advanced Democracies

Every year, about 30 researchers defend their PhD theses in the SPS Department. In order to illustrate the range of their research, each month the department selects and presents a dissertation notable for both its exceptionally high quality and general interest to the public.

26/05/2021 | News - Research

Why do regional political leaders initiate secession crises in advanced democracies? In his doctoral dissertation, Ion Pagoaga Ibiricu shows that regional leaders are not always loyal to their own cause. They organise referenda on secession, convene plebiscitary elections or enact secessionist laws and thus, secession is debated in democratic institutions. However, these politicians calculate the timing of their actions, delay their plans, and even abandon them, which questions their compromise with the secessionist cause. Although most secessionist parties’ militants and social movements sincerely believe in secession, parties in government do not always act accordingly. Pagoaga Ibiricu’s research defends that regional leaders are strategic and that their actions are directed to the central government of the state and to the parties they compete with in regional politics. On the one hand, regional leaders use the threat of secession to bargain with central governments and obtain more decentralised powers. On the other hand, regional leaders use secession to compete with other parties and to obtain electoral benefits.

Pagoaga Ibiricu has also researched why similar secession crises create changes in the regional politics of some territories, but not in others, through the comparative study of the secession crises in Quebec, the Basque Country, Scotland, and Catalonia. His findings demonstrate that the interactions between the political parties of a region change substantially when the magnitude of the secession crisis is significant. Secession has never been successful in advanced democracies and secession crises are still a rare phenomenon, but when put on the table credibly, they can have the potential to monopolise the public debate. Regional leaders put secession forward with the aim of making its topic preeminent and challenge other parties. These are forced to modify their strategies and the political debate polarises. The parties at the extremes, those in favour of outright secession and those that favour the status quo, have more capacity to adapt to the new situation, whereas more moderate parties struggle to find an effective response in a divided scenario. On top of competing, parties need to cooperate to promote the cause of secession or to stop it. However, cooperation is not always complete. Parties are aware that the future is uncertain, do not trust all their partners to remain loyal to the cause and consider the electoral consequences of their choices. As a consequence of this process of competition and cooperation, some parties divide, new parties appear and other cease to exist. The political life fragments and parties’ electoral support varies. More extreme parties benefit from these crises the more intense these are. Conversely, citizens do not choose between two sides but rather one side, in favour of the secession of the region or the decentralisation of more powers.

Pagoaga Ibiricu’s research has implications for the comparative study of secession and of regional politics. If citizens continue supporting secession, there might be potential for new regional challenges and political instability. Regional leaders can decide whether or not to initiate new crises, setting the focus on secessionist politics and drawing it away from other issues.

Read Ion Pagoaga Ibiricu's thesis in Cadmus.

Ion Pagoaga Ibiricu defended his thesis in October 2020. During his doctoral studies, he was also a visiting researcher at the Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship at McGill University in Montreal and at the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. Prior to his PhD at the EUI, he obtained a Master of Arts in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe in Natolin. His research interests focus mainly on comparative territorial politics, nationalism, secession, party competition, party systems and European integration. His research has been published in Regional and Federal Studies.

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