3 November 2019

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Democracy and the Catalan Crisis

The Crisis in Catalonia represents not simply a crisis of political mismanagement but a realization that our systems are more fragile than they appear. Democracy is only as strong as our collective belief in it. Once that collective belief is lost, it’s hard to bring back.

by Yaron Hubin

There is undoubtedly a lot of history that surrounds Catalonia, its relationship with the Spanish government and the identity that has built up within citizenry. Even considering the reaction that Catalan developments fuel in Scotland, it’s clear that the issues surrounding it offer a more complex relationship between identity, democracy and its rate of responsiveness. The latter obviously affected by the egos, opinions and irrationality of its actors.

Unsurprisingly, the events that came out of Spain following the fringe referendum on October 1st seem completely out of place when considering they not only took place in a modern democracy but that it occurred over the right to vote on an issue. Forget whether its mandate and result was legal or illegal. The calling of the referendum and its crackdown makes clear that successive actors within modern democracy do not appreciated the fragility of its stability. This fragility is true not only during its worst times but also at its best.

Though it is difficult to universally proclaim exactly what makes up a strong healthy democracy vis a vis to a nations specific political culture, certain elements like the rule of law, civil society, the freedom of speech and the right to vote definitely have their place as its strong core elements. Though we can safely argue that both Spain and the region of Catalonia share these characteristics, the recent crisis highlights an even more important philosophy to democracy that is often over looked:

It is only as strong as our collective belief in it. Once that collective belief is lost, it’s hard to bring back.

In its reflection, not only did the Catalan government openly defy the court rulings of the central government but its laws. When it took its rhetoric to the ballot box and pushed for the regions citizens to exercise in their democratic responsibilities it knew, very sinisterly, that millions of people openly defying the central government would put the case of independence on a collision course with not only Spanish law and order but the collective understanding that Spanish law was supreme at that moment in time. Perhaps less importantly, the Catalan government knew it would mobilize its core followers which is evident by less than half the electorate showing up but still translating to a 2.8 million person turn out and an overwhelming 90% approval for separation. Shockingly, scenes of Catalan regional police standing idly by, failing to abide by the central governments court orders to close polling station, represents the most shocking of protests by authorities and clearest show of allegiance. Altogether, it openly questions the authority of the Spanish identity and leaves the Spanish government with two basic solutions. Crack down on all methods of illegal activity or leave room for further descent.

Since then, with the world watching, Carles Puigdemonts looked to convert an illegal referendum stained with a brutal crackdown and an unverified result into a genuine course of action. Instead, after back door 11th hour politics, it manifested into a symbolic declaration of independence followed shortly by its suspension in hope of a political solution between the central government and the regional government. Today, at the point of writing, the government of Mariano Rajoy has formally started the process of removing Catalonia’s self-government and in place instituting direct rule.

Not only would this not have happened had the Spanish government allowed for a referendum on a legitimate question but would have capped the Catalan nationalist ability to grow in popularity. The developments out of Spain have added more legitimacy to its agenda and has set the narrative of the Spanish government and that of the European Union locking both its citizens in its courses whether it likes it or not. In point, the lack of citizen influence in the process or lack of progress on the issue has resulted in a frustration that has spilled over to the citizen’s front. A unified issue, has now been carved into back door negotiations, direct rule and a populous that is looking for action on a “clear” vote. It has pitted every layer of society against each other and led to the arrests of civil servants and campaigners.  It has added another dent in the stability of the bloc and brought out the European Union’s weaknesses to deal with desires of self-determination.

The point is not to simplify the events coming out of Spain but to represent the colossal nature and implications of these multi-layered developments all occurring in less than a month. Democracy must be about informative decision making, accountability and reflective policies. When we consider that prior to the fringe referendum polling suggested “NO” to independence was the clear majority winner, many are unsure what this course of action means for citizens on both sides of the dispute and how does the “NO” camp make its case with no platform. The same is true to the “YES” camp though as of time of writing, the Catalans government has made independence the regions priority following the vote.

These developments show an existential crisis that will/have translate to a crisis in democracy. Today, as the Spanish government awaits approval of the senate to implement its direct rule of Catalonia, the regional government has already announced its disagreement and has described the actions as a coup. An order the Catalan government will more than likely purposely fail to accept. This will translate to another showdown but this time one where the Catalan people will understand what its cause means to the Spanish central government.

As a firm believer in the ultimate authority of democracy and a strong civil society, we need to draw the most important lessons from the Catalan crisis to make our states more responsive, reflective and more engaging. Even more so in regions with strong sub cultures. A government confident in its ability to do good, should never fear the right of vote. It will always present two routes with many new possibilities. One route will serve as a mandate. The other as a reality check that will ultimately require a change of argument and modus operandi. Either way, a citizen’s mandate is the most powerful form of authority and overriding it serves no long term purpose if the aim is the preservation of democracy, freedom of expression and a strong, educated civil society.

It must however not be used as a means to endorse ideas of political parties but rather serve as a mandate from the people to the governing party. The failure of political parties to understand that people are wanting more control over their lives is its biggest fault transitioning into what feels like a new wave of western politics. Referendums must be used to deliver mandates to the state that must ultimately be respected and enacted. With respect to the Social Contract it would seem that it has been abused, misplaced or covertly redrawn. Our responsibilities have been subverted by our needs of subsistence and every election feels like a 5 year (for us in the United Kingdom) blanket term to interpret the peoples will vis a vis to the party line. The problem in Catalonia is the cause for independence has been dragged into a feud between competing factions fighting over authority than one that should be open to debate and citizen lobbyists over an official referendum. This question of self-determination is not uncommon but must be answered like all others should be. If troubles are left unresolved, we find ourselves separated from the system we need to be part of. That in turn creates divisions between government and people as well as cause and stability.

For the renaissance of democracy, we must push towards states that reflect and execute the will of the people with all resources aimed to making the best outcome for all parties involved. Rather than a competition where human and financial resources are wasted on trying to subvert competing claims.

The democratic process is only as strong, healthy and intelligent as its actors. We are best not to forget that.

* Yaron Hubin is Political Commentator and Chief Editor at The Political Humidor (Twitter: @yaronhubin / Instagram: yaron.hubin- www.yaronhubin.com)

The information and views set out in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Good Lobby.