The Catalonian Referendum and the Struggle of Democracy

No one putting a foot in Barcelona can get away from Catalan culture. No one can skip the “calçots -with their sauce, please-”, la “sardana”, the “Castells” and the many other things that differentiate Catalonia from the rest of Spain. Yet, no one that goes to Galicia could miss Galician, or miss a “Queimada”. No one going to Andalusia could miss the different accent, nor the “feria de Abril”, or the “migas de la alpujarra.” Evidently there is no such thing as a homogeneous Spanish culture. As Pedro Sánchez, the leader of the opposition, said just a few weeks ago, it is a “nation of nations.” Though this might be disputed by many, no one can deny that Spain is formed by regions, or autonomous communities, as is stated in the constitution. These regions have their own voice in education and public health, some even have their own regional police (Mossos or the ertzaintza) and many have substantial control over tax revenues. Yet these regional powers are not universal and vary considerably. Certainly, there are a number of regions that match the Oxford Dictionary definition of nationhood: “A large body of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular state or territory.” No one that knows about the Iberian history could rightfully deny this, though of course some of them will.

Understanding the Catalonian referendum without having in mind the history of both Spain and Catalonia is impossible. Catalonia started to exist even before the concept of Spain existed. The Condado de Barcelona (geographically most of present day Catalonia) united with the Kingdom of Aragon almost a thousand years ago, this eventually evolved to become the Crown of Aragon, which in 1492 united with the Crown of Castilla and became (almost) the current territory of Spain. During this period, Catalonia had kept all its original laws and had kept its own language.

With the War of Spanish Succession and the rise of the Bourbons, autonomy came to an end. The new King Philip V had not received support from all regions and one of his first decisions was to remove all regional laws and to impose Castilian in every region that hadn’t supported him (among them, Catalonia). Three hundred years later we arrive to the twentieth century, when the Second Republic allowed Catalonia to recover some of its historical laws and created the “Estatut d’Autonomia de Catalunya”, the fundamental law of the region. But then, once more, authoritarianism struck and Franco removed every single autonomous law of all the regions, imposing a centralised government as well as Spanish as the only language. Catalan and all others regional languages became illegal and were repressed under the Franco regime.

Nowadays, the current Spanish Constitution is conscious about this dichotomy, as shown by its article 2 “[Spain] recognises and ensures the right to autonomy of all nationalities and regions integrated within it [the Spanish Nation] and the solidarity between them.” The Constitutional Court declared the referendum illegal based on the same article, which states “The [Spanish] constitution is founded on the unbreakable unity of the Spanish Nation, common motherland and indivisibility of all the Spaniards.” Therefore, we arrive to the famous dichotomy of Spain, where it is recognised that Spain is not Spain without the different cultures/regions that constitute it, but not capable of conceiving that one region could leave. We have then a democracy inside a democracy that is not allowed to speak out.

This dichotomy and this struggle of democracies is ultimately expressed in both Catalonia’s President, Carles Puigdemont and Spain’s President, Mariano Rajoy, each one of them “representing” and “defending” their own democratic rights. Neither of them seem to have thought of the long-term consequences of their actions, having created one (or two) extremely divided country(ies), and no opportunity for dialogue and understanding.

Mariano Rajoy has shown through his years in both government and opposition how little he cares about or understands any regional independence, never showing any willingness for dialogue. His reaction has been to completely ignore any possibility of agreement or change of the constitution. Many agree that all this started in 2006 with the reform of the Estatut, which declared Catalan as Catalonia’s first language, provided the region with its own judicial power and extended its fiscal control. This reform was approved in 2006 by the Congress and was revoked partially in 2010 by the Constitutional Court. The following year, 2011, Catalonia Regional saw one of the first big demonstrations of Catalonian discontent with Spain and the desire for independence. 2011 was also the year that Rajoy came into power, the rift had just widened.

The following year the then Catalonian president, Artur Mas, called for early elections in order to ensure a vast majority in favour of independence/Catalan sovereignty. CiU lost twelve MPs and had their majority weakened, they were forced into a pact with the left-wing nationalist ERC. Mas then had to keep one of his promises and called for a participative process in 2014, the 9-N to question the population about Catalonia’s future.

He then held “plebiscitary” elections in 2015, this time CiU had separated into two parties and Artur Mas had joined ERC to form JuntsPelSi (JxSi). The two main nationalist parties had formed a movement to lead Catalonia into independence. Their aim was to get a nationalist majority that allowed them to declare independence. Independence parties (JxSi + CUP) got an absolute majority, however, they didn’t win the popular vote. Two years later, in 2017, the Referendum was called and Catalonia was declared independent (or not).

Negotiations now seem impossible, no one is willing to talk, Many say Catalonia’s government has been ignoring the silent majority of people that doesn’t seek independence and would rather stay in Spain. Many other say that Spain is an oppressive country that doesn’t deserve Catalonia, who should be free to choose. Reality is far more complex.

Not everyone in Catalonia wants independence (demonstrations and elections tell us that), however the Spanish government has been deaf to any dialogue with Catalonia. Sending riot police to close polling stations is counterproductive. And so is triggering the Article 155, which suspends the autonomy of Catalonia and imposes the rule of Madrid. It also runs contrary to Spain’s foundational idea of autonomous regions. The Spanish constitution might be old and may need renovation. Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that during the 40 years of democracy in Spain, Catalans and Catalonia have gone from strength to strength. It is one of the wealthiest and most populated regions in Spain, one of the main Spanish tourist spots, and is bubbling with culture and innovation. Spanish democracy, despite its flaws, has been able to hold together a country that was formed just because of a marriage, not deep connections or cultural heritage. The Spanish transition is still an example today, 40 years later, of how a country can switch from authoritarianism to democracy.

Opinion Column by Anonymous


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