Democracy in a divided nation

The case of conceivable Catalan independence

Tension between the Spanish government and the Catalan regional parliament had been building up for weeks. It reached its climax when Spanish policemen violently tried to contain masses of Catalans who were trying to cast their vote in referendum about possible independence of Catalonia. Carles Puigdemont, the regional president of Catalonia, initiated the referendum. This referendum was actually not even legal. However, many Catalans felt very passionate about the future of their region and therefore did vote. Some voting offices were shut down whilst others remained accepting votes. People were protesting out on the streets of Barcelona for the independence of Catalonia and its separation from Spain. This does not sound like a situation that would occur in a modern democratic nation. Apparently, democracy in Spain is a lot  more complicated than it seems.

By Leonie Andriessen, November 2nd, 2017

Throughout history, Spain has faced problems with separatists from different regions in the country. Spain is divided into seventeen autonomous communities that are granted self-control. However, the Spanish also emphasize the unity of the country in which the sovereignty lies with all Spanish inhabitants. Some regions have lingered more towards independence than others. The most radical example being the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) that fought for the independence of the Basque country and wanted to forge a socialist, Basque state. They planned terror attacks round 800 deaths in 50 years. Not surprisingly, this has left an incredibly disapproving feeling towards separatists within the Spanish government. Even though the Catalan separatists do not use violence, the Spanish government does not want to give in to their independence wish. 

The importance of democracy
Spain’s history has led to the level of democracy in Spain these days. In a democracy, the voice of the public should be heard, however, in the Spanish case, the voice of the Catalans is not heard by the Spanish government. In a well-functioning democracy, minority groups should still be considered, and the Catalan minority is not considered by the ruling of the Spanish government. Therefore, a big reason for the Catalans to vote in the referendum was to raise awareness for the wish of many Catalans for independence. The referendum was more about  ‘democratic quality’ according to Marcel Buen, a Catalan who voted in favour of independence in the referendum.

However, democracy within the Catalan community is not the way it should be either. The regional government of Catalonia states that the official outcome of the referendum is that 90 percent of those who had voted, voted for the independence of Catalonia. But only 42,3 percent of Catalans entitled to vote, actually voted in the referendum. Surveys were being held amongst the Catalan population and it was estimated that only 40 percent of the Catalans actually wanted Catalan independence. Earlier in 2014, when another unofficial referendum was being held in Catalonia, it was estimated that much more Catalans would be pro-separation. Thus, the Catalans that were against separation boycotted the referendum. This could be what happened this time as well. Either way, a big part of the Catalan community was not heard in this referendum while they do have a strong opinion about the future of Catalonia. Considering the outcome of the surveys and the amount of people that actually voted, it is difficult to consider if the outcome of this referendum will lead to a democratic decision. When there are such conflicting opinions within a community it would be logical to think in compromises, but the referendum of Catalonia only considers the extreme options that both will rule out the opinion of a big part of  the community.




The rule of law
A common concept is that there will be no democracy without the rule of law. The regional government of Catalonia wants to declare independence based upon an illegally held referendum. This goes against the rule of law, since the referendum is prohibited by the law. However, the Spanish constitution does not allow such referenda about separation and independence, which on its own could be considered a restriction to democracy. Moreover, Marcel Buen said the following: “when there are so many people that want change, it is more important to do the democratic thing, which is to listen to them, instead of being set on the constitution”.

Consequences of a declaration
The Prime Minister of Spain, Mariano Rajoy, wanted to hear from Puigdemont, the regional president of Catalonia, whether or not the Catalans would declare independence. When Puigdemont declares this independence, the Spanish government will most likely annul the Catalan parliament, with reference to article 155 (which gives the Spanish government the right to intervene in a ‘rebellious’ region) of the Spanish constitution, in order to stop this from happening. Puigdemont could even be persecuted and his political career will then be over. If he does not want to risk all this and thus does not declare independence, he will likely lose support in the Catalan regional parliament. It is not hard to imagine that Puigdemont feels trapped. When he persues his followers and their intentions and thus declares independence he could face a major limitation to his freedom: annulment of the Catalan parliament and even a possible persecution. In view of that, a discussion could be held about what is more important. The rule of law or freedom of speech?

Apparently Puigdemont grants more importance to the latter of the two, since he declared Catalan independence on October 27th, after a voting in the Catalan regional parliament. A slight majority of the parliament voted in favour of independence, while the opposition had left the room in protest. Consequently, predictions were met when the Spanish senate agreed on the execution of article 155, only thirty minutes after the declaration. The Spanish government will probably take over control of the Catalan region for a period of time. While it is too early to tell whether independence will become a reality, it does not seem very likely that Catalonia will have an independent future. It is more likely that Catalonia will face a period of political, economic and social upheaval.

Hoeveel Catalanen willen echt weg uit Spanje?-en elf andere vragen over het referendum - September 28, 2017 -

90 procent stemt ja in referendum Catalonië - October 2, 2017 -

Hoe Rajoy zijn Catalaanse tegenstrever voor het blok zet - October 11, 2017 -

Spanje blijft referendum voor Catalaanse onafhankelijkheid dwarsbomen: miljoenen stembiljetten ingenomen - September 20, 2017 - De Volkskrant

Catalonië roept onafhankelijkheid uit - October 27, 2017 -

Photo: National Interest



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