People protest as police try to control the area in their attempt to cast their vote in the referendum of October 1, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. Juan Carlos Lucas/NurPhoto/Sipa USA. All rights reserved.When I left my apartment in Barcelona last Sunday to grasp what the atmosphere was like in the streets, in a momentous day for the history of this country, I went to the voting place where I usually vote in regular elections, and verified that the place was closed.
Later on, I saw shocking images on TV of a number of law enforcement officers removing the urns placed there by volunteers, who defended them protesting. This is the image, I thought, that both sides were looking for. On the one side, to send the world the message that the State acted coercively against "democracy"; on the other, to affirm that the State was enforcing the rule of law to protect the constitutional order that guarantees that all citizens have to abide with the law.
Then, I went to another polling station, this one run by the Catalan government. I saw that it was operating normally, and that there was a long line of people waiting to cast their vote. The police was nowhere to be seen. I noticed that people deposited ballots in opaque Chinese-made plastic urns with the Generalitat logo.
Interested in what kind of guarantees the voting process might have, I observed that there were no party inspectors, only militant volunteers from the pro-independence organizations encouraging and reassuring voters, and asking them to come back in the afternoon to help protect the ballot boxes from a possible confiscation.
Each voter approached the urn and presented his or her identification. One volunteer dictated the number, another wrote it manually in a paper folio and another introduced it in a cellphone app, that is when the app worked, which was not always the case. They were not checking the information against any census, although they certainly appeared serious and committed to the job.
The atmosphere was one of civilized chaos, but people were fulfilled (even emotional, as it also happened in the previous vote on the same matter on November 9, 2014) to have been able to participate in the process and able to achieve what clearly was an act of illusion, of protest, of rebellion. They were pleased to see how the central government had failed in its attempt to prevent their vote.
Adding up a vote of protest
As I left the polling station, I greeted an old acquaintance in the line. He said: you know I do not believe in this process, but after having seen the images of people getting beat up by the police, I said to myself: this is intolerable, it is over, you have to protest.
This is the second result sought yesterday: to merge those who are convincingly in favor of independence with those who dislike and would protest against the current government and particularly its president, Mariano Rajoy. Thus, it is by adding the pro-independence votes to the votes of protest when the desired effect could be achieved: to palliate the foreseeable victory with 100% of favorable votes.
And this is indeed what happened. People opposed to the independence claim endorsed the legitimacy of the process and, by voting "no", blank or casting a null vote, validated the voting itself and, therefore, the overwhelming triumph of the Yes. The count announced at midnight – without accounting for the methodology used – finally declared a 90,09% of votes favorable to "an independent state in the form of a republic", but left many questions unanswered.
The protest vote was somehow a certainty since last week, when police stormed Catalan government offices, disrupted various procedures for organizing the ongoing vote, and arrested some high-level officials to testify before the judge. But the disproportionate response of the police in numerous cases last Sunday added yet a different kind of votes to the votes of protest: the vote of indignation. No one thought that the police would react with excessive violence, although perhaps someone did know but thought it would be convenient if the police did?
The autonomous police, charged with carrying out orders from the public prosecutor’s office, did not want to carry the judicial mandate of intervention to the last consequences – an attitude that was foreseeable and even advisable. And so the command of the central government security forces, instead of simply taking note of the facts, fell into the trap of intervening violently in the face of a vote that was already legally discredited, and sufficiently logistically damaged, to yield democratic guarantees comparable to any normal election.
A grave mistake by the State
It was a grave mistake to send in riot police – trained to contain or dissolve concentrations using force – to confront people who, albeit peaceful, are determined to defend what they understand are their inalienable rights. Closing their polling stations and confiscating the ballot boxes on such a highly emotional day, so charged with electricity, was unnecessary, especially knowing that sparks (if not fire) were guaranteed. These sparks led in a number of cases to unthinkable abuse, and the list of wounded and bruised ended up being excessivelly long and shameful. Under this circumstances, a single rubber bullet fired is already excessive in any case.
With those actions, the central government was discredited and showed itself as the old Leviathan that it is. Meanwhile, the Catalan government, responsible for carrying out an initiative that it knew contravened the constitutional framework in a totally irresponsible manner, obtained a third and definitive result from the images of police brutality: an international scandal.
In addition to public indignation, the images contributed to place the debate where it was most convenient for the Catalan government: as they had said during their mobilization campaign, it was important to show that the vote was not about "independence", but about "democracy". The independence cause was able to add a new, certain, and grievous offense to its repertoire of reasons to support its argument that there is no negotiating with this kind of State. This way, they also managed to disguise the fact that they failed to achieve what they repeatedly promised their voters: a formal referendum, internationally recognizable and with all democratic guarantees.
But the question one asks is: Why did the State act in this way, when it was absolutely unnecessary and counterproductive? Why give so much advantage to the political adversary, and fall into its trap?
One of the many reasons could be that the State is reacting in the face of the decay of power, or, as pointed out by the powerful book Moses Naim published a few years ago, in the face of "the end of power." For a while now, the classical State has been losing attributes of sovereignty, attributions that had given its raison d'être and strength for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
And it has lost its powers, not only in economic aspects such as currency, capital flows, discretionary public spending or regulation of domestic and foreign trade, but also in controlling the flow of information or migration, capacity to prosecute criminal organizations or to deal with international terrorism.
In the case of the European Union states, this loss of powers has been offset by the construction of some common institutions, from having a single currency and a shared body of legislation to establishing a European court in Strasbourg. This has been called cession of sovereignty “to the top”, to supranational institutions. However, it has also occurred “to the bottom", towards territories and urban centers, thus resulting in a squalid State, emptied of skills and half-naked, that tries to regain the robes of authority and to re-nationalize.
And in order to exercise what is left of that authority, if states still conserve some of their old attributes, this is the "hard power", consisting of the monopoly of violence and the administration of justice, together with certain mandates such as the defense of borders and of the territorial unit of the State. But even these state powers can be seriously eroded by internal dynamics when territories take advantage of the states' cracks and weaknesses to assert themselves and try to conquer some of the latter’s attributes of "sovereignty" for themselves.
Added to this tendency is the fact that the exercise of coercive power and force is, and rightly so, increasingly challenged, especially if that force is exercised against their own citizens, and not against an external enemy. Even so, many states, when threatened by forces they do not control on the streets, increasingly tend to use force as a resource, even when it is clear that the violent dimension of their actions may most probably turn against them in terms of accusations of lack of democratic behavior.
Declaring unilateral independence, yet another grave mistake
What we have seen these past days in Catalonia is an extreme example of this phenomenon. Thus, the government of the Generalitat declared Sunday night that – in view of the results of the vote, which occurred despite the coercive prohibition of the Spanish state and demonstrated the fragility of the power that it still has – will take to the regional parliament a proposal to “implement what is in the bill", meaning transitional laws adopted ad hoc in an illiberal way by themselves.
This means proposing a unilateral declaration of independence. Given that the count produced an overwhelming, almost unanimous result, that the people are indignant and ready to protest (at least in this early post-traumatic moments), and that the international community is horrified before what it has seen in the media, this seems like the perfect time to complete the national project so longed for.
We live in convulsive times, where every claim and protest can join forces in a single unified demonstration to try to disrupt the system (from the fall of a government to an interruption in infrastructure, the repeal of a law or, as we may be witnessing now, the proclamation of a new State) to the point of irreversible effects. In this particular case, the protest has combined the claims of national sovereignty of the nationalist right and the anti-system pro-independence movements of the left, to the anti-government protests of the new alternative left plus a number of genuinely outraged citizens.
Although the different groups make their own electoral calculations, by linking the fate of their political projects to popular mobilizations and protests in the streets, and eventually to their repression, they may have lost the ability to control political times. Protests will continue in the coming days, and the temptation to intervene as well.
The sad paradox is that, with the old Spanish state about to collapse thanks to its own mistakes, others attempt to become something as obsolete as a State itself. This will not contribute to a truly federal, inclusive and democratic European project that needs to strip the States of what remains of their exclusivist national essence.
In the midst of general protest and indignation, and the euphoria of its supporters (although they remain a stubborn minority, with only 37.8% of the census in favor) the (unilateral) Republic of Catalonia is about to be born. Its future and duration is difficult to predict in these tragic days for Catalan, Spanish and European democracy.
Federal Spain, which will ultimately be the solution to this State crisis, is moving further away on the stormy horizon. And yet, it will be inevitable to start talking to each other.