By Ali Mashraf
Spain is between the devil and the deep sea at present with the Catalan independence referendum crisis. The pro-independence faction of Catalonia is strongly demanding independence following the October 1 referendum. Granting independence to Catalonia would mean secession of their autonomous territory whereas ignoring their pleas of a democratic right to sever ties with Spain and form an independent republic would mean taking harsher measures leading to stripping Catalonia off its autonomy and enforcing central government’s rule over the region, something that will not go down well with the Catalans striving for independence.
Update: Just in – Catalonia parliament declared independence from Spain
A crisis looming…
How did the whole crisis lead up to this point? To begin with, Catalans have consistently maintained their stance that the referendum is their democratic right. The years of cultural and political subjugation under General Franco’s regime and the current gap of €10 billion (almost 4% of Catalonia’s GDP) between the amount the Catalans pay in taxes and what they receive in services in return from the central government are not unknown to all.
Catalonia captured everyone’s attention when the region held a referendum on October 1 on the issue of becoming an independent state in the form of a republic. The referendum was led by the Government of Catalonia and approved by the Catalonian Parliament on September 6.
Central government responds with brute force
Situations turned quite ugly before the referendum as 14 Catalan officials were arrested and a number of raids in local government offices were carried out to seize referendum campaign materials and ballots. Also, in a shocking turn of events, riot police, being deployed in the streets attacked and arrested numerous citizens. Videos circulated on social media showed protesters, without showing any signs of provocation, being beaten up by riot police in the streets. Nearly 900 people were injured due to police brutality.
The actions of the police had greater impacts on the referendum later that day. Prior to the referendum, opinion polls showed that 71% of the population wanted the referendum to be held but only 41% were likely to vote yes. Additionally, a previous non-binding referendum, popularly known as Catalan Self-determination Referendum, held in 2014 had a maximum turnout of only 41.6% people of the Catalan government’s initial data, of which 80.8% voted for Catalonia to become an independent state.
Result of the October 1 Referendum
However, the provisional result revealed that a whopping majority of 91.6% of the voters wanted Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic. Nevertheless, there remains a lot to be done to implement the outcome of this referendum.
Legal and political loopholes in the Referendum
Primarily, the Spanish Constitutional Court already declared the referendum illegal after it was challenged by Spain’s central government. The Court cited the Constitution of 1978 which states the sovereignty of the Spanish people and the indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation in Articles 1 and 2 respectively. Moreover, this is not the first time Catalonia faced opposition from the Constitutional Court. The Court, in 2010, discarded a change to the Constitution that would have given the Catalan language, spoken by more than 75% of the Catalan population, a preferential status.
In addition to that, the Court also suspended Catalan Parliament’s session of October 9 where Catalan leaders were hinting at declaring independence. But this order came after a challenge from Catalonia’s Socialist Party that vehemently opposes separation from Spain, not the central government.
Furthermore, the referendum has been accused of having a lot of irregularities. Provisional figures point out that there was a turnout of only 42.58% of the registered voters. Prior to the referendum, the Catalan government approved a law which stated that the result of the referendum would be binding with only a simple majority, without the requirement of a minimum turnout of voters. But the Catalan Statutes of Autonomy requires a two-third majority in the parliament for any change to Catalonia’s status.
The ruling party pointed out to police brutality, arrests and seizure of ballot papers prior to the referendum as reasons for the low turnout of voters. Nonetheless, the opposition party believes that a united Spain will make everyone better off economically. Besides, Catalonia’s separation from Spain might also fuel other regions such as the Basque country, from following suit, further threatening the autonomy of Spain.
After the independence referendum, Catalan government refrained from declaring independence immediately. Catalan President Carles Puigdemont invited the central government to open dialogs in order to solve the current impasse. It was the right course of action as any declaration for independence would leave Catalonia in a much deeper crisis.
However, the central government remains adamant and rejected the proposal of holding any sort of dialog. Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy proposed to remove Carles Puigdemont as the President of Catalonia, suspend the Catalan Parliament and call for regional election while seizing the control of Catalonia’s finances, police and media.
Additionally, major banks like Sabadell and CaxiaBank along with other financial institutions have decided to move their registered bases from Barcelona in a bid to remain within the Euro zone.
The way out
The irregularities in the referendum, as pointed out earlier, have somewhat undermined its result. But even if the absolute majority wanted independence, how would they bypass the Constitutional Court’s order?
In his paper titled ‘Legality And The Referendum On Independence In Catalonia’, Joan Vintró, Professor of Constitutional Law at University of Barcelona propounds that currently, there are two mechanisms under which the Catalan people can legally decide upon the question of creating an independent republic: firstly, the referendum provided for in Article 92 of the Spanish Constitution and secondly, the referendum on popular consultations recognized by the Catalan Act 4/2010.
But both of these are quite lengthy procedures and will require active participation of the Spanish and Catalan Parliament, holding of dialogs between both the parties, full cooperation of the Constitutional Court and the support of the overwhelming majority of the Catalans, not a technical majority, to demand for an independent republic. The current crisis though, does not give us much hope for having dialogs between the parties as the central government remains stubborn on their stance.
Professor Vintró also speaks of a third alternative to solve the crisis- the option of holding a popular consultation without it being considered as an official referendum by Act of Parliament of Catalonia. He is of the opinion that it differs from the mechanisms of a referendum and would not require state government’s approval. It remains to be seen whether the Catalan government would resort to this as the last option.
World leaders also opined that the current deadlock surrounding Catalonia should be resolved by holding of dialogs between the central and regional government officials. While most of them are against the independence movement and want stability in the European region, everyone has condemned the Spanish government for their poor handling of the situation, the way police attacked Catalan people in the streets and their rigid stance.
Catalonia finally declares independence
With no signs from the central government to sit for dialogs and with the threat of being stripped off its autonomy looming in the horizon, the Catalan Parliament, on October 27, 2017, voted to declare independence from Spain. The decision was taken after a 70-10 ballot backed the move in the Catalan Parliament although opposition MPs boycotted it. It remains to be seen as to how the central government would react to the move.
Ultimately, the best possible solution lies in respecting the democratic rights of the Catalans and their call for self determination in a peaceful manner, which will also serve as the best example for other states that may strive to gain independence in near future. Otherwise, chaos and conflicts would reign supreme and the central government would act like an authoritarian regime by forcing their rule on Catalonia, an option already being debated in the parliament and termed by the pro-independence faction of Catalonia as the worst possible decision ever since General Franco’s regime in Spain.