It takes two to tango? Referendums and the Catalonia issue in Spain
- October 30, 2017
- Posted by: admin
- Category: General Knowledge
The news has been flooded with reports of a major crisis in Spain, as Catalonia, one of Spain’s wealthiest and most productive regions is at loggerheads with Madrid to become independent. To this effect, the current President of the Government of Catalonia, Carles Puigdemont headed the campaign for a referendum for complete independence of Catalonia from Spain. Before the referendum, the Constitutional Court of Spain suspended the operation of Catalan law and the Spanish government moved to take control of the region’s finances and policing. Despite attempts to deter the referendum from being held, it went ahead as planned on October 1, 2017, which leads us to the present issue.
Catalonia is an autonomous region in the north-east part of Spain. The conflict between the Catalans and the Castilians has been going on for years now. In 1714, Catalonia was first included in the Spanish empire by King Philip V. During the rule of Spanish tyrant Francisco Franco (1939-1975), Catalonia’s autonomy was crushed and the Catalans were suppressed, their identities questioned. In 1978, Catalonia was given the autonomous status. In 2006, Catalonia passed a statute that granted even greater powers boosting Catalonia’s financial clout and calling it a “nation”. This claim of Catalonia as a “nation” rang alarm bells in Madrid, hinting at Catalonia’s growing power as well as possible steps towards secession. In 2010, Spain’s Constitutional Court reversed most of this 2006 statute.
As of today, Catalonia is one of the wealthiest and most productive regions of Spain, accounting for 16% of Spain’s population and for about 19% of Spain’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
Claim for Independence
Catalonia’s claim for independence and the struggle for it is long-lived. Catalonia has its own language, a recorded history of more than 1,000 years as a distinct region, and a population almost as big as Switzerland.
While it suffered persecution during Franco’s time, in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, the spillover of the national unemployment rate of 21% was felt in the 19% unemployment rate in Catalonia. Another concern of the Catalans is that while they pay a lot in taxes to Madrid, they do not get adequate support from Madrid. For example, the expenditure by the Spanish government towards the development of infrastructure is disproportionately low compared to what Catalonia gives to Madrid.
In light of these issues, the referendum was held, asking the question: “Do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic?”
Catalonia has around 5.3 million voters. The referendum saw 90% of 2.26 million Catalans voting in favour of an independent Catalonia. The pro-independence group alleged that due to widespread violence during and after the referendum, and some ballots being confiscated by the Spanish police, around 700,000 votes had been lost in all likelihood.
As per the law passed by the Catalan Parliament, the result of the referendum would be binding and independence was to be declared by the Catalan Parliament within two days of the Election Commission of Catalonia proclaiming the results of the referendum.
The Constitutional Court of Spain suspended a session of the Catalan Parliament in a bid to prevent a declaration of independence in response to a petition by the Socialists’ Party of Catalonia, which opposes secession from Spain.
Carles Puigdemont said that Catalans do not want a “traumatic break”, rather they wanted a “new understanding with the Spanish state.” The Spanish government (read Madrid) asked Puigdemont to clarify what Catalonia’s stance was and what the future steps were going to be, but no clarity was forthcoming.
Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy threatened to invoke Article 155 of the Constitution of Spain, vide which direct rule may be imposed in crisis in any of the country’s autonomous regions. It effectively allows the Spanish government to forcibly take control of Catalonia’s administrative bodies.
At the time of writing this piece, Catalonia had declared independence only for the Spanish government to take over the region a few hours later.
Costs for Catalonia and Spain
While on the one hand, independence for Catalonia would inevitably mean Catalans get full sovereignty and autonomy in conducting and regulating their affairs, including finance that has been the bone of contention as well, this independence will also have repercussions for which the preparedness of Catalonia can be questioned.
The economic costs include a decline in the tourists in the region. Reports suggest that demand for hotels and houses has already gone down in Catalonia following the referendum. Prominent banks and companies might move their offices and establishments from the region, leading to the Catalan economy incurring losses. The administrative costs would be no less, for example, Catalonia would have to set up its own institutions and infrastructure. Furthermore, Spain is a member of the European Union (“EU”). If Catalonia and Spain were to go their separate ways, Catalonia’s relations with the EU will be hanging in the balance.
As for Spain, Catalonia declaring independence will be a blow to Spain’s territorial and political integrity, will wave the flames of further dissent, and the economy, to which Catalonia contributed significantly, will also be adversely affected.
A referendum prima facie is considered to be a strong instrument in a democracy for it involves people voting directly on a particular issue. Issues could range from issues of independence (referendum for Norway’s separation from Sweden) to membership of an organization (the “Brexit” vote by Britain against EU membership) to referenda for day-to-day issues (such referenda are common in Switzerland).
For any referendum to be successful and a true reflection of the people’s will, an adequate number of voters should have turned up, a clear question should be framed for the referendum, the final decision-maker should be stated in the legislation, there should be clarity as to on what basis the decision will be taken (simple majority or a certain proportion of the electorate), and how the result would be interpreted.
The dangers of referendum include the fact that it is a majoritarian and populist measure, undermines Parliamentary democracy, and the public might not take an informed decision, rather it might be unduly influenced by rhetoric and ideals, over rationality.
The future of Catalonia in Spain may be uncertain still but all parties need to understand that a knee-jerk reaction is not the solution. In this increasingly polarizing world, constructive dialogue, taking all stakeholders in tow, will do the trick.