The crisis in Catalonia: A case of Democracy or Illegality

BARCELONA, SPAIN - OCTOBER 03: Catalan Police officers secure the area as thousands of people chant slogans outside the General Direction of the National Police of Spain building to protest against the violence that marred Sunday's referendum vote during a regional general strike on October 3, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. According to the Catalonia's government more than two million people voted on Sunday in the referendum of Catalonia, which the Government in Madrid had declared illegal and undemocratic. Officials said that 90% of votes cast were for independence. The Catalan goverment's spokesman said that an estimated of 770,000 votes were lost as a result of 400 polling stations being raided by Spanish police. Hundreds of citizens were injured during the police crackdown.

The Day Democracy Died?

By Tomos Evans

1 October 2017: a dark day for democracy in Europe. The will of a nation rejected. ‘But the vote was illegal’, I hear you cry, ‘the result was invalid’. Correct – but surely if independence is what the Catalan people sought with a staggering 90% in favour, the Spanish government would do well to give them the chance to decide their future in an in-out referendum, putting the issue to bed once and for all.

Was it fear on the Spanish government’s part, fear of losing their most affluent region? Or was it a greater, Europe-wide fear that success for Catalonia would result in other regions following suit? Flanders, Basque, Brittany, Scotland, Wales? The lack of condemnation of Spanish police brutality from the British government was clear but, of course, the government is all too familiar with Spain’s strife. David Cameron’s government thrice opted for the non-Spanish route by not only allowing, but calling, a referendum. These referenda are, arguably, the major contributing factors in creating a more fragile United Kingdom – its future more uncertain.

Allowing the Catalan people to exercise their democratic right would have been easy in principle – in practice, perhaps less so. However, what was witnessed instead was utter carnage. Images of faces, hundreds of them – bloodied and bruised – circulated online and on the news channels. Suddenly, the so-called illegal referendum which could have easily slipped under the radar of the average European citizen was making international headlines. The Spanish government had, through their response, made a rod for their own backs – portraying themselves as the villain of the piece.

Recent events in Catalonia serve as a stark reminder of democracy failing to serve the people which it represents. Whilst we often bemoan and berate the series of elections and referenda in recent years, without them where would we be? What would society look like? The answer doesn’t bear thinking about.

It’s difficult to predict exactly what the consequences of the referendum will be for the people of Catalonia, Spain and Europe. What is certain, however, is that this referendum, legal or not, will be remembered as a relationship-defining moment for Catalonia and Spain. It may well lead to the rise of the independent cause right across Europe – those previously suppressed voices suppressed no more.

Now Is Not the Time for Catalonian Independence

by Ryan Jones Matthews

Following a chaotic independence referendum which was overshadowed by an excessively heavy-handed crackdown by Spanish authorities, President Carles Puigdemont declared that Catalonia had “won the right to statehood”. Speaking to the BBC only a couple of days later, he elaborated on his position by announcing that the region would declare independence from Spain in the next few days.

What Puigdemont has apparently failed to consider, however, is that he lacks the democratic mandate to do this. Despite an overwhelming majority of votes cast (90%) being in favour of secession, the turnout for the referendum was abysmally low, at only 42%. There are numerous factors for this low turnout, the most obvious of which being the brutally authoritarian sabotage and suppression of the vote by Spanish police. However, this does not change the fact that only 37% of Catalans actually voted for independence.

Crucially, the vote also lacked legal backing. The law drafted by the Catalan government to make the referendum binding was ultimately blocked by the Spanish constitutional court. This makes the legitimacy of the result, at best, questionable.

Because of this lack of mandate and legitimacy, the Catalan government’s decision to go ahead and secede from Spain anyway will consequently only harm the independence movement – and Catalonia itself.

It seems probable that the crisis will only escalate further, with Madrid likely to bypass devolution and assume direct control of Catalonia. It is therefore vital for both sides to put aside their differences and come together constructively for the good of the people.

All Catalans have a fundamental right to choose between independence and unionism, and not just 42% of them. The Spanish constitution needs to be amended with this right to self-determination in mind. An open and national debate needs to be held on the issue, where unionists can argue their case and secessionists theirs. Most importantly, every single Catalonian needs the opportunity to vote on the matter safely and legitimately.

Only then the will of the people will be truly heard, and only then – should Catalonia want it – Carles Puigdemont could declare independence.