Thursday, October 9, 2014

Is the Catalan non-binding referendum too much for Spain’s democracy?

The vote is due in exactly one month’s time, on 9 November

In Catalonia, the ongoing political situation has been referred to as the process (‘el procés’) for some time now. You hear the word process regularly in the media, academic circles and discussions between friends and acquaintances. The reality is that today, just one month before the 9th of November, the scheduled date for the referendum on independence, the situation is quite Kafkaesque. Year 2014: in a democracy, people want to vote but they aren’t allowed to do so.

Catalonia is a territory with a clearly differentiated identity, based on its own history, culture and language. In Catalonia there is a president, a government, 80% of the MPs, 97% of the mayors and close to 80% of the population that want to vote on 9 November. They aren’t even asking for a referendum, they would just like to vote in a popular non-binding referendum. It’s a question of knowing the opinion of the majority to be able to act accordingly.

Catalonia forms part of the Spanish state, today a consolidated European democracy, but where the memories of the Franco dictatorship and a poorly resolved transition are still very present in the state’s structure and the mentalities of the governing class. A state where Francoist symbols are still present and accepted and Francisco Franco still has a mausoleum at the Valley of the Fallen (‘Valle de los Caídos’) where he is honoured every year is a state with evident deficiencies. Why does Germany outlaw the relics of Nazism while Spain doesn’t do so with those of the Franco dictatorship?

This Spanish state is the one that irresponsibly blocks the Catalan referendum, undermining Spain’s democratic progress with regard to the rest of the Western world, and in stark contrast to the attitude of the United Kingdom or Canada when faced with similar cases. Inadequately employing legalist excuses and shielding themselves behind a supposedly neutral Constitutional Court, presided by a former card-carrying member of the governing Popular Party, who in public conferences and published books has demonstrated being openly offensive towards Catalonia. However, the popular desire to have a referendum is not only legitimate, but legal, and its proscription is political. President Rajoy should know that his position is irrational and short-sighted. After multiple offers to try and reach an understanding through dialogue, he has placed himself in a dead end, as has been recently signaled to him in influential media such as Bloomberg and the Financial Times.

Voting is not only a normal event in democracy; it is the best solution, perhaps the only one to solve conflicts once the attempts at compromise and dialogue have failed. Catalonia will never employ violence, but that is no excuse for it to be ignored. In the famous dichotomy between bullets or ballots, Catalonia, like Scotland, has clearly chosen its option for the latter, behind which it stands firmly and with pride. But maybe the EU and other democracies would do well to also make a clear choice over which is the best way to resolve such problems. It would be an effective way to tell the world: in the 21st century, the political future of a territory and its borders should be decided at the polls, in a civilized way.

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