Back at the start of the year 2014, the Economist noted that 2014 was shaping up to be a very special year for democracy. As many as 42 percent of the world would be voting at some point, the magazine explained, very likely to be the largest number of people voting ever.
The obvious example of this democracy in action was India, where 814.5 million people were eligible to vote in one of the largest elections in history. That election's dramatic result is surely an important point in history, but in hindsight, it looks like general elections may not be the votes that matter most in 2014.
Instead, it looks like referendums – those rare votes on single issues – are what has really reshaped the world this year.
In just eight days, Scotland will have a referendum on whether to become an independent country and leave the United Kingdom. While the vote was long seen as a foregone conclusion and the chances for a Scottish referendum slim, recent polls have suggested that the "yes" vote could well have the edge. Such a vote would mark the end of a 300-year union, and would have remarkable repercussions for Scotland, the United Kingdom, and their allies. Some are predicting a dire economic situation for Scotland, while other imagine outlandish nightmare war scenarios.
Ultimately, what would actually happen is hard to predict and still subject to change, but even if the vote fails this time, there is a strong chance that another vote may succeed at some point in the future. A hastily formed coalition of British political parties have offered the Scots a timetable for further fiscal powers, meaning that no matter what, Britain will end up changed.
Scotland was not the first referendum of the year. Back in March, the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea voted to join the Russian Federation. The final result of that vote (96.7 percent in favor, with a turnout of 83 percent) was seen as dubious at the time – the presence of Russian soldiers and lack of international observers seemed unlikely to produce fair results – though a pro-Russian results was widely predicted. Regardless, international criticism of the vote hasn't mattered much in hindsight. The rest of the world might not recognize it, but Crimea is now de facto Russian territory.
Six months later, the impact of this referendum is still playing out. Russian President Vladimir Putin backed off calls for a referendum in eastern Ukraine, but critics accuse him of staging a covert invasion instead. Now Ukraine and Russia have brokered a tenuous peace deal that many Ukrainians believe will leave the rebel-controlled areas in Moscow's sphere of influence. The Crimean referendum was the start of a process that has placed Russia at loggerheads with much of the world, reigniting Cold War concerns and even raising concerns about nuclear war. Countries with large Russian minorities remain nervous.
It'd be wrong to overstate the similarities between Crimea and Scotland, despite what Russian officials were saying back in March (and pro-independence Scottish first minister Alex Salmond's ill-advised praise for Putin a little later). These are extremely different situations. However, around the world many are taking both situations as ominous reminders that the world's borders aren't set in stone. And the referendum bug isn't over.
In November, separatists in the Spanish region of Catalonia plan to have their own referendum on independence, and they are clearly keeping a close eye on the Scottish situation, as will be other fledgling separatist movements around the world. Europe in particular is a hotbed of separatist movements, with Flanders, the Basque Country, and Brittany just the most notable examples: Eve Hepburn of the University of Edinburgh has already noted a "domino effect" emerging in at least three Italian regions that seek greater autonomy or secession. Even areas as far flung as China are acting a little nervous about their own separatist movements and the aftermath of 2014's referendums.
Madrid has refused to allow the Catalan referendum, and said they will not respect its results. Perhaps at one point it was perceivable that Spain might have agreed, very cautiously, to a referendum to placate the Catalonia's separatists. After 2014 so far, that's very hard to imagine.