Friday,16 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)
Friday,16 November, 2018
Issue 1363, (5 - 11 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Mocking democracy in Spain?

Both sides will need to tread carefully if violence is not to escalate after last week’s referendum in the Spanish Catalonia region, writes Salma Nosseir


Mocking democracy in Spain?
Mocking democracy in Spain?

Amid political unrest and police violence, citizens of the Spanish region of Catalonia attempted to vote on the independence of their region from the rest of Spain last Sunday in a referendum that is proving to be pivotal in the history not only of Spain, but also of Europe as a whole.

The regional government of Catalonia headed by Carles Puigdemont from the Together for Yes Party called for a referendum despite a ruling by the Spanish Constitutional Court that the referendum was unconstitutional and that the Catalonia government should not proceed with it. The Spanish government in Madrid has rejected the referendum, having tried to prevent it from happening.

The autonomous Catalonia region has a long history of attempting to gain its independence. During the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, Catalan autonomy was taken away, and it has been regained slowly in different spheres ranging from the police to culture.

Nowadays, Catalonia is one of the most industrialised regions in Spain and is responsible for a fair share of its economic strength. It generates about 20 per cent of the country’s GDP and contributes roughly a third of its exports. Catalonia attracts more than one quarter of the country’s overall investment, and therefore a Catalan decision to leave Spain would leave a large dent in the Spanish economy.

The Spanish government made it clear that it would not tolerate a referendum and that participating in one would be an illegal act it would do its best to stop. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy called on the Catalonia government to “stop this escalation of radicalism and disobedience once and for all,” and the national guard was then employed in Catalonia in order to prevent the vote from happening.

Regional government offices were raided, Catalan officials arrested, and polling stations closed down in the days leading up to the vote. Pro-Independence demonstrations criticising the involvement of the government in Catalan affairs have been shut down with rubber bullets, and during the referendum itself around 900 people were injured.

Despite the opposition, the Catalonia government vowed to proceed with the referendum and to fight the reaction of the Spanish government, which Puigdemont deemed a “democratic disgrace.”

Some 42 per cent of the region’s 5.3 million eligible voters managed to cast their vote, according to the Catalonia government, and an overwhelming majority of 90 per cent of these voted yes to independence.

According to the Catalonia government, the results are binding and they will be forwarded to the Catalan parliament in order to start independence procedures. The Spanish government is still referring to the illegal nature of the referendum and to the fact that the Spanish Constitutional Court has already ruled it to be unconstitutional.

The repercussions of the referendum on Spain are immense. The violent way the Spanish government has been reacting to the Catalan independence movement is being interpreted as a sign of weakness heightened by an acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation.

 A democratic state in the European Union would not risk shutting down a democratic referendum by violent means if it did not feel threatened. That sense of threat is heightened by fears of a potential ripple effect. In strongly decentralised Spain, multiple autonomous regions such as the Basque Country could follow suit and pursue their own independence from the rest of the country.

Thus far, they have declared their support for the referendum and called for the national government to stop its suppression of independent decision-making.

What should the Spanish government do in order to prevent losing this economically important region and risk similar situations in other regions? One answer lies in Article 155 of the Spanish Constitution, which gives the government the right to intervene in an autonomous region if it does not abide by the constitution or risks the general well-being of Spain.

The Article has never been called upon before, however, and doing so now could risk further violence.

Are negotiations likely? Puigdemont has already said that he would rather “go to prison” than give up on Catalan independence, and the Spanish government has made it clear that it will not negotiate with the Catalonia government.

Locking up Puigdemont and his followers would probably set off a wave of further protests in Catalonia, which is why the government will need to tread carefully. Reacting with violence could set off a wave of further internal and external pressure.

The European Union has stated that, as was the case in the Scottish referendum in the UK, it will accept independence only if it is constitutional and if the Spanish state accepts it. Puigdemont has called for international aid, arguing that the outside world cannot ignore the violence used by the Spanish government towards its own citizens.

In a statement, the European Commission said it trusted the leadership of Rajoy to “guide his country through this difficult time” while remaining true to the “principles of the constitution and the rights of citizens.”

International reactions have included a diplomatic balance of “respect for internal affairs and national sovereignty” and “respect for the rights of citizens,” but the tide could turn if the Spanish government continues to use violence.

The Spanish government cannot show itself to be threatened by allowing the violence to escalate. It also cannot allow itself to be pigeonholed into negotiations that could cause other Spanish regions to pursue the same path or give legitimacy to something that has been deemed unconstitutional. 

It cannot allow its arguments against the Catalonia referendum to become parts of its strategy against it. The world is looking on, and both sides need to be aware of it.

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