Beginning as a question of Catalan secession, Catalonia’s October 1 independence referendum has brought into question the democratic rights of all Spaniards. Although many Catalans assert the legitimacy of their vote, Spanish and Catalan officials never agreed on the meaning of a “yes” vote, causing chaos on voting day. But before attempting to determine the legitimacy of the referendum, it is necessary to clarify the democratic rights of Spanish citizens living in self-governing communities as well as in Spain as a whole.
Catalonia is considered a Comunidad Autónoma, or an approved self-governing community recognized by the Spanish government. These regional divisions were formed after the death of dictator Francisco Franco and the ratification of the Spanish Constitution of 1978. Though these self-governing communities remain underneath the state and are ultimately subject to Madrid, they have the ability to vote and rule over many aspects of their region. Such liberty plays a vital role in Catalonia, a region with a rich cultural history and a distinct language. And given Catalonia’s contentious past with the state, including the prohibition of the Catalan language by dictator Francisco Franco, many Catalans see secession not only their right as part of a democratic state, but also as the best way to preserve Catalan cultural heritage.
The most recent referendum was not Catalonia’s first attempt to vote on secession. In 2014 Catalans held a nonbinding vote, which, like the 2017 vote, the Constitutional Court of Spain declared illegal. Unlike this vote, however, Catalans did not meet brutal resistance from the central government in 2014. Despite the Spanish constitutional court's declaration that the referendum was illegal and the state’s numerous threats, President of the Generalitat of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont pushed Catalonia to hold the vote, declaring that the comunidad autónoma has “the right to decide [its] future” and asserting his community’s right to freedom in peace. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, however, has made clear that all Catalan attempts to organize a vote for independence stand as illegal, citing the referendum as “a real attack on democracy.” Rajoy did not mention any past dialogue between Catalan officials and Madrid nor did he accept questions after his statements.
Puigdemont insists on the legitimacy of Catalonia’s vote and told the BBC that his government would quickly act to ratify Catalonia’s independence. Rajoy and Puigdemont’s conflicting and accusatory statements highlight the lack of dialogue between the two governing entities, which remains the most prevalent cause of the failure to reach an agreement on the legality of the vote. A full two days after the vote, a critical time for communication, Puigdemont claimed that there had still been no official contact between the state and Catalan officials.
The validity of the vote remains complicated by interference from the state, low voter turnout, and issues of constitutionality. Before the day of the referendum, the state blocked websites and advertising campaigns promoting the vote, raided offices of printing companies scheduled to print ballots, sent thousands of police officers into Catalonia to block polling stations, and threatened to prosecute those in association with the promotion of the referendum. Prepared for resistance on the day of the vote, many Catalans slept outside of schools that were to serve as voting centers, waking to nightmarish opposition sent by Madrid. Police trucks blocked streets and entrances to schools while officers pushed those who refused to leave out of line. After receiving orders from the state to disrupt the referendum, police used rubber bullets and physical force on civilians who lined the streets to vote, leaving more than 750 people injured. Rajoy defended the state’s actions, stating that “the state has acted with firmness and serenity” and provided no comment regarding the violent interactions between law enforcement and civilians.
Given the threats presented by the state and the force of police on the streets, many Catalans did not show for the vote, particularly those who stand against independence. Of the 5.5 million electorate only 2.26 million Catalans participated in the referendum. Therefore only 42 percent of the electorate voted, leaving just under 39 percent of the electorate as definitively for secession by measure of vote. Results from a July poll showed a much more evenly divided Catalonia in comparison to the heavily skewed 90 percent pro-secession result of Sunday’s vote. Of those surveyed in the July poll, only 41 percent reported as in favor of independence and 49 percent said they were opposed. While the percentage of Catalans in favor of secession reported from the October 1st vote is remarkable, not enough of the electorate’s vote has been recorded to democratically conclude an outcome.
Constitutionality and the Spanish people’s entitlement to the basic principles established by their democracy prevail as the most contested issues when determining Catalonia’s right to hold a referendum. As a constitutionally approved self-governing community, Catalonia has the ability to govern itself in many capacities; however, the constitution makes clear that it is ultimately exclusively Madrid that defines the conditions under which Catalans can exercise their rights.
Rajoy stands with Spain’s constitutional court and claimed that the vast majority of Catalans agree with him. He further praised those in favor of a united Spain, mentioning that they side with “democracy” and “peaceful coexistence.” Even King Felipe VI, a symbol of Spain’s unity, reiterated Rajoy’s words, emphasizing the need to respect the law and constitution and urging “democratic cohabitation.”
In order for Catalans to decide whether to break away from greater Spain, they must first prove they are constitutionally and democratically entitled to hold a vote for independence recognized by the state. While the state argues that adherence to the constitution and rulings of the court constitute carrying out democracy, Catalans argue the inhibition of a vote for their independence limits the rights and democratic principles constitutionally entitled, not only to them, but to all Spanish citizens. Catalans cannot expect recognition of their vote as legitimate without first engaging in diplomatic dialogue to ensure mutual agreement of the terms of the legality of a referendum. The state has pushed the issue of Catalan secession away from acknowledgement as a priority time and time again, and Catalonia has also failed at finding a diplomatic solution to their grievances without deliberately disobeying the laws and decisions declared by the state.
Catalans and the central government continue to defend their idea of democracy, but their assessments of what constitutes democracy are based on the actions of the “undemocratic” opposing side. The state sees Catalans as undemocratic due to their failure to recognize the decision of the Spanish constitutional courts while Catalans see the decision itself as an injustice. As both sides demonstrate reluctance to maintain civil communication, the future of a legitimate vote for Catalan secession remains obscured by political tension and, given such tension, is unlikely.
Emma Dyer is a Contributing Writer for The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the Creative Commons.