Back From the Abyss, But Democracy Has Not Been Thwarted in Catalonia

The look on the faces of the crowd standing outside the Catalan parliament said it all. The elation as Catalan President, Carles Puigdemont, appeared to declare the birth of an independent republic was quickly followed by dejection when, in his next sentence, he said the birth would be immediately postponed to allow for dialogue with Madrid.

In making such an ambiguous and tentative start to the birth of a nation, Puigdemont was trying - to borrow a phrase - to have his cake and eat it.

He stepped back from the abyss, but he has only bought himself a limited amount of time. In response, Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy has triggered the now infamous ‘Article 155’ of the Constitution to give Puigdemont until next Monday to spell out whether or not he has declared independence.

Whether the temporary de-escalation will hold will depend on his reply. Clever words are unlikely to win him any more time and unless he makes an explicit climbdown, Madrid is likely to continue applying the heavy hand of the law and suspending home rule.

This is a dangerous path for both sides. There are reports of military units being deployed to Catalonia, of charges of sedition and treason. The pro-independence movement - deflated as it is - would probably take to the streets in defiance. Only disaster would follow.

But among all the sticks being wielded by Madrid - the main opposition Socialists back Rajoy - there is a very tempting carrot on offer in the form of a promised reform of Spain’s Constitution within six months so that it is more responsive to the needs of the disparate regions that make up Europe’s oldest nation-state.

This can be the only way to progress now. Puigdemont must see that.

Madrid’s wrong did not make the case for a Catalan state right

Had the proclamation had any validity Catalonia would today find itself outside the EU, without a currency and its citizens facing border checks to parts of Spain they have been able to travel freely to for centuries. Capital flight — not just by businesses but thousands of families — would have crippled what today is one of the most successful and dynamic economies in Europe.

That reality is perhaps what has crushed Catalonia’s nationalist dream, not the truncheons sent from Madrid.

The other is that it was built on illegality and in defiance of the rule of law, the cornerstone of any democracy.

That Rajoy acted with grosteque force by sending in the riot police is not disputed. But Madrid’s wrong did not make the case for a Catalan state right. It did not make a referendum that was illegal legal. It did not make a process that was undemocratic democratic.

To this day, Puigdemont does not represent a majority in Catalonia, let alone Spain.

Catalonia has never been a nation state. Breaking away from Spain would be more like London and the South East leaving England rather than Scotland the UK.

Moreover the referendum was called at a mere month’s notice. On September 6th, pro-independence speaker of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell, changed the day’s business to hold a vote on a binding referendum for October 1st. It was a political ambush and a shabby attack on democratic process. A plebiscite that was not in the parliament power’s to grant was brought into being by trickery.

There was no formal campaigning, with both sides putting their cases and running campaigns monitored to ensure they do so fairly: anti-independence parties did not campaign at all. The Catalan Electoral Commission disolved itself in September so there was no oversight of the election. Some polling stations were closed as part of Madrid’s excessive crackdown; those that remained open were staffed by pro-independence supporters who also counted the votes.  

Democracy should exist in the open. Elections should be conducted freely and fairly.  

A referendum with two choices but one campaign was never a democratic vote. When one side becomes the judge, it cannot be said to be free and fair.

These people are demagogues, they are not democrats

The fragile nature of democracy’s grip is under threat as never before. As much as we place our faith in its institutions, the democratic process can be distorted if the will is there and scruples are set aside.

The Brexit referendum was won after Leave campaigners manipulated the truth and statistics to suit their own purposes. They were able to do so because they knew they would never be truly accountable. Donald Trump’s election is not only disputed because of allegations of collusion with Russian authorities but by his attacks on the inalienable rights on minority citizens.

The consequences in Spain for this democratic distortion might be greater for the country than either Brexit or the Trump presidency. It may be that Rajoy’s aggressive tactics have mishandled the situation irreparably and he has foolishly played into the pro-independence movement’s hands to allow Puigdemont misleadingly to protray Catalonians as a repressed minority.

By avoiding outright confrontation with Madrid, Puigdemont has taken a step back from the brink. This is not democracy thwarted though.

These people are demagogues, they are not democrats. What we are witnessing is not democracy but a coup.

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Disclaimer is a group of writers, journalists, and artists who have been brought together by their desire to tackle serious issues with a light and humorous touch. A mixture of idealists and pragmatists, Disclaimer is socially very liberal, economically less so. The editorial stance is formed collectively, based on the shared values of the magazine. Gonzalo Viña founded Disclaimer with the help of Phil Thornton who oversees the economics coverage. Graham Kirby is the editor.

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