In recent weeks, with the date for the Catalonian independence referendum looming nearer, tensions between the governments of Barcelona and Madrid have been on the rise. The vote, which was held on October 1st, has been denounced by the Spanish government as a ‘constitutional atrocity’ while support from Catalans for independence grows stronger by the day. But which side has the firmer claim to democracy? Which government holds more authority on the matter? And why?
Catalonia has had an extensive struggle for autonomy, and this push for independence is by no means a recent matter. Under Franco, Catalonia suffered great linguistic, political and cultural restrictions. Despite this oppressive silencing, the nation recovered its cultural voice and some political autonomy, growing to become a thriving economy and tourist centre. Bubbling under this success grew a grassroots movement for greater devolved powers and potential independence, yet this is where the conflict arises.
Trouble began in 2003, Catalonia sought to increase its autonomy from the Spanish government further – and were denied in 2006, being forced to take a watered-down version of the statute instead. In a controversial poll held in 2014, it was revealed that over 80% of Catalonians supported independence. Despite the official status of this poll as a ‘symbolic’ referendum only, criminal charges were brought against then Catalan Prime Minister, Artur Mas, due to the illegal nature of the referendum.
As rallies in support of independence reach fever pitch, attempts from the Spanish government to silence the movement have become increasingly heavy handed. In theory, it would appear that the Catalonians’ right to sovereignty seems fair and democratic. The Catalan parliament which passed the referendum laws holds a majority government, while parties that support the move away from the Spanish state are numerous; with three explicitly pro-independence main parties, six smaller coalitions and abundant youth and student groups. The response seems to shout overwhelmingly that Catalonia wants independence, so surely the most democratic measure would be to afford the nation its own sovereignty?
This proves to be problematic when considering the meaning of democracy. If we consider Spain as a whole, the most democratic procedure is to disallow the vote, as the majority of Spaniards are against the referendum taking place (only 10% support it). However, this is exactly the problem – Spain is not a whole. Spain is a conglomeration of communities, with varying cultures, and perhaps none so varying as in Catalonia. Catalonia has its own language, its own literature, its own character. It has a unique sense of identity, a national work ethic centred around common sense and industriousness. It is more politically left wing than the majority of Spain. It has a thriving economy. Catalonia is, therefore, more appropriately defined as a nation, whereas Spain can be characterised as a state. Indeed, nationhood itself is defined as measuring against another; Catalans are Catalan, as opposed to Spanish.
Despite the constitutional legitimacy of Spain’s stance against the referendum, its very backlash against pro-independence supporters indicates the need for secession. The Spanish government has a duty to all its people – Catalans are included within that mandate. The more Spain attempts to block the referendum – the more politicians they arrest, the more websites they block, and the more political freedoms and rights they prohibit – the stronger the case for Catalan independence becomes. As put by Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop, “all peoples have the right to self-determination and to choose the form of government best suited to their needs, a principle which is enshrined in the UN Charter.” As Spain continues to clamp down on the liberties of the Catalan people, we may be left wondering whose democracy is the one truly being threatened.
Image: Ivan McClellan