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A (weak) homage to democracy in Catalonia

The images of a half-empty parliament during the referendum law vote illustrate how Democracy and Catalonia have gone their separate ways. Democracy is not the law of the majority, but the protection of the minority. Español Português

Hundreds of Catalan separatists gather to protest in front of the Catalan Economy Ministry. September 20, 2017. Barcelona, Spain. Matthias Oesterle/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

“Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”

- George Orwell, 1984

Catalonia may be closer than ever to being independent, but it is increasingly far from embodying the democratic evolution that many of its supporters would have us believe. The secessionists have used a slim majority to approve the referendum and transition law, without any regard for legal safeguards, reports from their own legal services, the constitutional order and standard democratic norms. The images of a half-empty parliament during the votes, while a MP removed the Spanish flags left behind by members of the opposition as a sign of protest, illustrates how the secessionist movement and democracy have gone their separate ways.

With the full support of the president of the Parliament, which should be impartial but acts as another member of the cabinet and finds it difficult to put behind her past as a secessionist activist, they opened the door to convene a unilateral referendum to ratify their project of secession. Mariano Rajoy´s government affirms that, after what was determined by the Constitutional Court, it will not allow for the referendum to be held. But as the 1 October nears and appeals for dialogue make no progress, we appear to be witnessing a train wreck, or rather, a train crashing against the wall of democratic legality.

Just ends can never justify unjust means

It is important to recognize that nationalism often emerges from the perception of a historical humiliation suffered by those who feel strongly about their belonging to a homeland. But the sense of humiliation alone cannot explain the sharp increase in support for independence in Catalonia – from 15% in 2009 to 41% in 2017. A severe economic crisis, some obvious mistakes from the Spanish government, a populist narrative blaming Madrid for every failure and a well-oiled propaganda machine offers a better – and  more plausible – explanation.

Catalonia may be closer than ever to being independent, but it is increasingly far from embodying the democratic revolution that many of its supporters would have us believe.

The nationalists have actively sought a sufficient majority to declare themselves independent. But they didn’t attain it in 2012, when thousands of citizens demanded a nation of their own and its president came forward, stating that he had heard the voice of the people and called for new elections, to guide them as a messiah towards freedom. But they lost 12 seats. Nor did they obtained a majority in 2014, when they organized a referendum, declared illegal and turned unofficial, as only 33% of the electoral census participated. Neither did they achieved their electoral objectives in September 2015, after the thirds elections in five years, although instead of recognizing it, they decided that less than 48% of the votes were more than enough to open the doors for independence.

Although 61% of Catalan are against a unilateral referendum and only 41% want Catalonia to be independent, nothing seems to dampen the secessionists from going to the last instances to impose their will. Ramming the referendum and transition law through Parliament may have successfully provoked Madrid and opened the floor for populist manipulations of what democracy is and what it isn’t. But this new and definitive mistake has also deprived the secessionist movement from any legitimacy it may have ever had. For in democracies, ends, however righteous they may be, can never justify unjust means.

Perverting democracy

A half-empty Parliament is the perfect representation of what is happening in Catalonia. It´s true that the secessionists have 72 seats – majority stands at 66 – but it is also true that they have less than 48% of the votes. With this parliamentary majority they can legislate, approve budgets, debate and win motions, and, if they fail to please their constituency, after their term citizens can decide again which majorities and minorities they want. But those decisions that are irreversible, those that affect the future of a country – and the future of millions of citizens – for many generations to come cannot be imposed by less than half of the electorate. Even so, in this legislature it became clear that the Catalan authorities only seem interested in putting a stamp of popular approval through demonstrations in the street on a secession that they have decided on, without taking into account what the majority of its citizens have expressed in the polls.

For in democracies, ends, however righteous they may be, can never justify unjust means.

Referendums are not a democratic tool per se. They can be easily manipulated, they are asymmetric and end up falsifying the multipolar reality that conforms society. If their promoters win, the result is irreversible. If they lose, we´ll vote again. You only have to look at what happened in Scotland and what the nationalists want to do. They lost the referendum, but if they had won, there would be no reversal or another referendum, even if the majority were to change, as often does in free and democratic countries.

Thus, not every decision reached by a majority rule is necessarily democratic. Checks and balances and separation of power exist for many reasons: one being to avoid that decisions that can negatively affect minorities are approved. That´s why the procedure to reform the Constitution, the law of laws, requires a qualified majority and differs from the procedure required to pass a simple bill. That doesn’t make it less democratic. It makes it democratic.

Pro-independentist members of the Catalonia Parliament celebrate at the end of the parliamentary session. September 6, 2017. Barcelona, Spain. Jordi Boixareu/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Celebrating a unilateral and unconstitutional self-determination referendum, in these circumstances, would be to go against what parliamentary democracies and legal and agreed referendums represent. It would violate international law, international principles, domestic law and even autonomic law. If it doesn’t meet the formal requirements required by a serious consultation, how can we speak of a democratic referendum?

A political solution must place reality above emotions

The polarization that surrounds this process raises many questions, but asserts one thing: this process will leave a very ugly scar, a divided society, winners and losers.

Mr. Rajoy should resist the urge to suspend Catalonia´s autonomy by applying article 155 of the Constitution. This would fall right into the secessionists plan, fueling the misinformed notion that Catalonia is being repressed and feeding the narrative that the blame was, is and it will always be in Madrid.

The polarization that surrounds this process raises many questions, but asserts one thing: this process will leave a very ugly scar, a divided society, winners and losers.

But, although this is not the what many believe, the reality is that Catalonia is a free society. Emotion and reality do not always go hand in hand. But Catalonia manages its education policy, its hospitals and its public services. It has its own police, its own media. Catalonia is not Kosovo; it´s not exiting a war. And it has not been invaded by a foreign army; like Ukraine.

Spain, contrary to what has been voiced by Mr. Puigdemont – Catalonia’s current president – it´s a democratic state. Being one requires you to safeguard the coexistence between all members of society and protect the freedom of every citizen. Not just those that think like you. His government has ruled only on behalf of half of Catalans, which he considers his own. But what is at stake is the coexistence between Spaniards. And between all Catalans. The voice of a Catalan citizens waving the Spanish flag is just as important as the voice of the Catalan citizen waving the Estelada – the secessionist flag – yet, one will be classified as Catalan, even a good Catalan, while the other will be classified as a bad Catalan, or not even as a Catalan.

The voice of a Catalan citizen waving the Spanish flag is just as important as the voice of the Catalan citizen waving the Estelada.

Fortunately, far more unites us than divides us. The terrible attacks this summer in Barcelona should serve to remind us that we live in open, fairly inclusive and free societies. That we want to live in peace and, that, we will oppose those who want to impose their reason over us. Is in these societies where we want to keep on living. Catalans should be allowed to vote, but within the law, not like this. In fact, they have voted 38 times since the restoration of democracy. Laws and electoral procedures exist to protect citizens from arbitrariness.

Spain is not attempting to gag 7.5 million people by force, as Mr. Assange suggested in Twitter. And it’s certainly not afraid to hear what they have to say. What the Spanish government is afraid, like everyone that believes in Democracy, is of those that claim to champion freedom, human rights and the rule of law, while they undermine it and twist it in their favour. Democracy, wrote Albert Camus, is not the law of the majority, but the protection of the minority.

About the author

Manuel Serrano holds a Bachelor’s degree in Law from ESADE Business and Law School and a Master´s degree in International Relations from the Barcelona Institute for International Studies (IBEI). He is an international affairs analyst, journalist and editor. He worked as Junior Editor at openDemocracy (2015-2017) and currently is freelance correspondent in Lisbon.

Manuel Serrano es licenciado en Derecho por la ESADE Business and Law School y Máster en Relaciones Internacionales por el Instituto Barcelona de Estudios Internacionales (IBEI). Es analista político, periodista e editor. Trabajó como Editor Asistente en openDemocracy (2015-2017) y actualmente es corresponsal freelance en Lisboa.

Manuel Serrano é licenciado em Direito pela ESADE Business and Law School e completou o Mestrado em Relações Internacionais no Instituto Barcelona de Estudos Internacionais (IBEI). É analista político, jornalista e editor. Trabalhou como Editor Júnior na openDemocracy (2015-2017) e actualmente é correspondente freelance em Lisboa.


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