Catalonia held the illegal ‘referendum’ on independence from Spain on 1 October. There is no surprise that, in this particular voting, the majority of the Catalans voted in favour There are no official results yet, but the Catalan regional government predicted that 90% of the 2.26 million – 42% of the region’s 5.3 million eligible voters chose the “yes” vote. The Catalan government will probably announce unilateral independence at the being of next week.
Why can we not treat the results seriously?
Firstly, the Catalan government organised the voting even though the Spanish Constitutional Court suspended the legislation. Additionally, the law which set up the referendum was passed by the Catalan parliament in a rush without any chance for the opposition parties to present their concerns. Therefore, breach of law happened at the very first stage.
Secondly, the referendum was short of any democratic standards and as such, it lacks legitimacy. To outmanoeuvre the central government which sent the national police to prevent the polling stations from opening, the Catalan government changed the rules of the game 45 minutes before the voting. The voters could print ballots at home and vote at any polling station (“universal census”), often without having to worry about showing their ID. The “census” electronic system to identify voters was effectively dropping. The Spanish interior ministry said that the police used either cyber-attacks to shut down the universal census or they were simply blocking the access to the Internet in the field. Finally, apart from the commission composed by academics from Catalonia, there was no official electoral commission overseeing the poll.
To make a long story short, the Catalan government did not deliver what it promised: a binding, effective referendum with legal guarantees.
How did Spain get there?
Although Madrid and Barcelona speak the same language, they do not understand each other. What is more, both sides are not even close to starting a mediation, not to speak about a dialogue. The discrepancy between the central and local governments has been widening for about a decade now. Since the economic crisis hit Spain in 2008, the majority of Catalans are especially unhappy with their lot, feeling that Spain takes too much of their money. Situation got worse when the Spanish Constitutional Court cancelled a large part of the Catalan statute (in 2010) which would have given the region even more autonomy and recognise Catalonia as a separate nation.
The Catalan issue represents a complex clash of democratic legitimacies. Although an overwhelming majority of people want to have a referendum on sovereignty, polls suggest that slightly more are in favour of remaining part of Spain. Not to mention the fact that many Spaniards from Valencia, Galicia or Andalusia would also like to have a say in the future of their country, meaning they would like to cast their votes too (which is what the Spanish Constitution from 1978 foresaw).
I agree that the Madrid authorities were wrong to send the national police to Catalonia, especially because it led to the bloody scenes last Sunday. More than 800 people were injured, as police stormed polling stations, seized ballot boxes and dragged away voters. However, I support the argument of the Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy that he has no mandate to allow for a vote of self-determination in Catalonia without a substantial reform of the Spanish constitution first – and this requires support from all Spaniards.
What is next?
Carles Puigdemont, the Head of Catalonia’s pro-sovereignty government will pass the official results this week to the regional parliament in order to vote on an independence declaration. It technically means that Catalonia will declare the unilateral declaration of independence from Spain at the beginning of next week. There is however little chance for Catalonia to become independent any time soon.
Madrid will not recognise the independence declaration. Most likely, the Spanish Prime Minister, who has a full backing of the King Filipe, will now hold responsible those responsible for organizing the referendum (Catalan officials), those who did not prevent it (local police) and those who made it happen (e.g. School principals). Mr. Puigdemont has already said that he is willing to go to prison over Catalonia’s independence.
Furthermore, the Spanish government will probably use its last resort and invoke, for the first time ever, Article 155 of the Spanish constitution, informally called the “nuclear option”. Since the ruling Popular Party has support of the second and fourth largest parties in the Parliament – the Socialist Party (PSEO) and the Citizens (Ciudadanos) party – there is a high chance this scenario will happen. Alberto Rivera, the leader of Ciudadnos and a Catalan at the same time, explicitly supported “nuclear option” already last Monday. Article 155 allows the central government to step in and take control of an autonomous region, which would mean that the current Catalan government will be removed from power, and the new regional elections will take place.
This crisis is a serious threat to Spain’s democracy and could cause a snowball effect not only in the country but also abroad.