Dictatorship in the Name of Democracy: the Case of Catalonia

 /  Oct. 7, 2017, 1:57 p.m.

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In 2014, now Catalonian President Charles Puigdemont voted against a motion in the Catalonian Parliament to support independence referendums in Kurdistan and Western Sahara. In an interview a week before last Sunday’s referendum, he did not renounce his 2014 vote. Two minutes later, he contradicted himself, claiming he firmly believed in the right to self-determination of all peoples.

Regardless of anyone’s views on self-determination, debates over the issue have obscured the extent to which the behavior of secessionist leaders over the last few years has constituted a deeply contradictory and profoundly anti-democratic case study of ethnic entrepreneurship.

The public conception of the Catalonian referendum as a popular movement fighting against Madrid’s oppression emerged after the police and the national guard used force against pro-independence voters. However, there has been no discussion on how secessionist leaders have abdicated their duties as representatives of all Catalonians, nor on how their decisions have been the main cause of today’s situation. The developments over the last few weeks have made it clear that pro-independence politicians never sought a democratic decision-making process to settle the statehood question; instead, they wanted to impose the secessionist perspective by any means possible.

I do not mean to imply that the supporters of pro-independence parties are behaving undemocratically, hypocritically, or even that their opinions are not worth considering. This is also not to imply that the central government has done nothing wrong—the fact that they have should go without saying. I merely want to focus on how the behavior of their leaders, by virtue of being anti-democratic, is directly opposed to the interests of all the citizens they claim to represent.

A Problematic History

Catalonia’s secessionist movement has flared in recent years. In 2006, the central government came to an agreement on a new Catalonian Statute of Autonomy, which granted an unprecedented set of rights to the region. After being approved by an overwhelming margin in a regional referendum, the agreement was immediately ruled unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. Submitting the statute for a referendum before the Constitutional Court could consider it was a grave mistake by the then Socialist central government.  It led to a wave of nationalism that culminated in a non-binding unilateral consultation (a milder version of a non-binding referendum) in 2014 on the question of independence. The opposition boycotted it, and Catalonian President Artur Mas subsequently called for regional elections in September 2015, which he referred to as a single issue election: independence.

In preparation for it, the two main pro-independence parties, the Catalonian European Democratic Party (PDeCat) and the Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), along with other relevant individuals, joined together into Junts pel Sí (Together for Yes), presenting the Catalonian people with a unified pro-independence candidacy against the constitutionalist parties. Although Junts pel Sí was listed separately from the Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), an anti-capitalist independence party, together all secessionist parties received 47.8 percent of the vote. However, the Spanish electoral system, by the use of the d’Hondt method and other measures to the same effect, is built to favor larger parties. Consequently, secessionists got seventy-two out of the 135 seats in the Catalonian parliament (53 percent).

It is with this slim parliamentary majority and a popular minority that the Catalonian government has brought us to where we are today. Over the last two years, almost everything significant that they have done and discussed has been to advance the goal of declaring unilateral independence. They were consistent and clear: they would achieve this independence without a referendum. They campaigned on an explicit timeline and path of how they would achieve independence that did not include a referendum; the parliamentary elections that brought them to power were the referendum they needed.

During this time, the pro-independence parties refused to make progress on any substantive policy, even in matters directly related to Catalonian self-government, like negotiating a new financing model or the completion of infrastructure plans in the region like the Mediterranean corridor.

Keeping in mind PDeCat had to change its brand (it used to be called Convergència i Unió) due to the amount of corruption in it, it seems strange ERC did not make any demands to fight it when teaming up with them. They would have found precedent in Ciudadanos (the centrist liberal party), which has challenged the conservative Partido Popular (PP) on corruption wherever they govern in coalition with them (or have reached investiture agreements). But ERC had no intention of doing so, since the perception that it was only Spain that was corrupt had to be maintained; and so they blocked the creation of investigative committees. While preaching the democratic nature of their movement, they also blocked the elimination of “aforamientos,” a process whereby politicians are tried differently than normal citizens.

But not even in their efforts to promote independence were they democratic. Ever since the beginning of the presidency of Jordi Pujol (from 1980 to 2003) the Catalonian government has engaged in an active and explicit policy of national identity construction, and the Junts pel Sí government only continued it. They used the education department to limit the use of Spanish as much as possible, and used the public television (TV3) as a propaganda tool, where a recent study by the Centre d'Estudis i Opinió found that an estimated 75 percent of TV3 viewers are pro-independence.

The Anti-democratic Referendum

In the weeks before the referendum, the Catalonian parliament (still without a popular majority) passed the “transitory laws,” which set an agenda for declaring independence and setting up a government if the referendum’s result was in favor of independence. These laws were passed while blocking the opposition’s requests for information and debate, and against the advice of the Consell de Garanties Estatutàries, an academic body (controlled by the independence parties themselves) that advises on proper adherence to the Statute of Autonomy.

This contradiction—that the pro-independence parties claim to be leading a popular rights-demanding movement—becomes bitterly ironic when one finds that the principle of national sovereignty in the Constitution, which makes the referendum illegal, is replicated in these laws (presumably to avoid declarations of independence of highly constitutionalist localities). Very few Spanish laws were retained in the transitory ones; this principle and the electoral system (that produced the uneven results) were some of those few. Lastly, it is worth noting that ninety votes are needed to reform Catalonia’s Statute of Autonomy (something to be understood as a regional constitution). The same number is needed to appoint a new head of the public television. To emphasize this point: they passed what were effectively independence laws with fewer votes than would be needed to appoint a television executive.

They proclaimed absolute transparency, but denied subsidies to private media that did not publicize the referendum in the months before. Moreover, although they argued for their rights of self-determination on the basis of Scotland’s experience, they produced nothing similar to the Scots’ Scotland’s Future, a document that provided detailed analysis of the costs and benefits of independence, despite convening a commission to write a similar document. Instead, they consciously perpetuated inaccuracies like the claim that the Spanish government steals 16 billion euros a year


from Catalonia (8 percent of Catalonian GDP), awfully similar to Nigel Farage’s 350 million pounds a week to the EU.

Most importantly, they passed laws contingent on a referendum that had no legal guarantees and that was organized by a pro-independence electoral board. The result of the central government’s intervention and blocking of logistics was a referendum where one could vote multiple times, anywhere in the region, and often without privacy. In the same interview mentioned above, Puigdemont claimed that the validity of a referendum was not contingent on logistics nor legality, but the extent to which people went to vote. A week later, he claimed victory in a “valid” referendum where 42 percent (and these are Catalonian government numbers) of the people voted, and of these 90 percent voted for independence. Pre-referendum polls showed 40 percent support for independence, although numbers have likely changed given the violence on Sunday.

Mas declared the 2015 elections plebiscitary on the basis that a referendum would be too divisive and would pit its citizens against each other. It is clear to me this referendum was never about genuine democracy, but about inciting turmoil and division. Secessionist leaders intentionally enticed popular movements for their own agenda. Now in a position where independence might be declared any day, and without any legitimate referendum to do so, it is time the national government invoke Article 155 of the Constitution to dissolve the Catalonian government and immediately call for regional elections: elections with real voting booths, a real census, and real guarantees.

After all, what true democrat would be opposed to elections?

Pablo Balsinde is a staff writer for The Gate, and an Economic Adviser for Ciudadanos. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here.

Pablo Balsinde

Pablo is a fourth year studying Economics and Philosophy. The founder of the Paul Douglas Institute, he has worked in several think tanks including the Institute of Economic Affairs.