Artur Mas, Carme Forcadell and Oriol Junqueras during the Catalan plebiscitary election day celebrations in Barcelona. Joan Cros/Demotix. All rights reserved.Democracy, and by that I mean the modern, Western understanding of it, is a near-sacred concept. The right for people to freely and fairly elect their leaders – and for their leaders to therefore possess a legitimate mandate for governance – is seen as inalienable in the Western world.
We take it for granted. We shouldn’t.
It is an inconsistent idea that the powerful are at liberty to interpret in whichever way they see fit. The differing recent experiences of Scotland and Catalonia’s independence movements reveal how democracy can in one instance be broadly respected, and in the other used as a weapon to shut down voices that loudly and democratically challenge the status quo.
On 27 September Catalans went to the polls in a regional election, which was dubbed by seemingly everyone outside of Madrid as an unofficial independence referendum.
Why was it being labelled as such? Because last year the Catalan parliament announced a referendum for independence. It had a clear mandate to do so, owing to the undisputed electoral success of independence-minded parties and yet the Spanish government decided to challenge the proposed vote. The government’s appeal to the Constitutional Court of Spain saw the referendum suspended.
The referendum still went ahead – unofficially, of course – and saw 84.6% of voters voice their approval for independence. Yet the Spanish government’s view on the matter was clear. The referendum defied the Spanish constitution and was therefore illegitimate.
Let us contrast this to the Scottish experience.
To its credit, the UK government allowed a Scottish independence referendum to take place in 2014, having recognised the electoral success of the separatist Scottish National Party, which secured a clear victory in the 2011 Scottish parliament elections.
The three major British political parties all campaigned for the Union to remain intact and they succeeded. The British political establishment, unlike its Spanish counterpart, had the maturity to give the people of Scotland a definitive say on whether they wished to remain as part of the UK or to secede and go it alone.
If we return our focus to Catalonia, where on Sunday the pro-independence parties won a majority of seats in parliament. The exact levels of support for Catalan independence vary according to who you ask, with both sides in the debate naturally exaggerating their own support base. It is beyond doubt, however, that at least a sizeable minority of Catalan voters want full independence from Spain.
The Spanish government has of course secured its own democratic mandate to govern, having been chosen for office by the entire Spanish electorate. It also has its own perfectly sensible reasons for wanting Catalonia to remain part of Spain. Aside from patriotic notions of Spanish unity, it benefits Spain economically to have the relatively wealthy and productive Catalonia as part of the family.
Yet the national government in Madrid isn’t the sole legislative power in Spain, a highly de-centralised country divided into 17 autonomous communities, each with its own legislature.
Catalan elections consistently garner a lot of support for the independence cause. In refusing to allow an independence referendum to be held, the Spanish government chooses to utilise its own mandate as a democratically-elected body to overrule a subordinate yet equally legitimate body. A body that is simply seeking to serve the interests of the people that voted for it.
As Catalonia is at an apparently irreparable political impasse, what implication does this example have for our understanding of democracy? Simply that democracy – and the ability to define it – lies in the hands of those who wield the greatest power.
I have no personal view as to whether Catalonia and Scotland should become independent countries, chiefly because I’m neither Catalan nor Scottish. But at least the people of Scotland were given the chance to speak definitively on the matter.
The way that the Spanish government resolutely shuts down the independence debate by ignoring a large portion of its citizenry is deeply problematic. Judging by recent developments in Catalonia, this intransigence may ironically be furthering the cause of the secessionists as voters realise they aren’t being listened to, and therefore shout all the louder.