Open Access Journal

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The Democratic Legitimacy of Secession and the Demos Problem

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Abstract:  The normative literature on secession has widely addressed the question of under which conditions the secession of a particular territory from a larger state might be regarded as justifiable. The idea of a normative justification of secession, however, remains ambiguous unless one distinguishes between the justice of secession and its legitimacy, a distinction that is now widely accepted in political philosophy. Much of the literature seems to have focused on the question about justice, while, in comparison, very little attention has been paid to the question of under which conditions secession can be regarded as democratically legitimate, as something explicitly different to the question of justice. This article addresses this second question. After some preliminary remarks, the article focuses on the main obstacle to develop a theory of democratic legitimacy of secessions, the so-called “demos problem.” Such problem, it is argued, has no categorical solution. This does not imply, however, that there is no democratic, legitimate way of redrawing our borders. Two strategies are proposed in this article to overcome the difficulty posed by the demos problem: an ideal strategy of consensus building and a non-ideal strategy of decision-making in the circumstances of disagreement.

Keywords:  all-affected principle; all-subjected principle; consensus; constitution; democracy; demos; legitimacy; referendum; secession



© José L. Martí. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.