What the Catalonia Referendum teaches us about democracy

By James Lewis

On the 21st December, the pro-independence coalition of Together For Catalonia, Republican Left, and the Popular Unity Party declared victory in the Catalonia regional elections after record numbers hit the voting booths.

This was, re-elected Catalan President Carles Puigdemont claimed, a victory not just for his Together For Catalonia and the separatist movement, but for the “Catalan Republic”. However, celebrations for Carles Puigdemont and many of his senior advisors would have muted due to the major challenge ahead that this vote brought.

Carles Puigdemont would have been closely following the results of the election, maybe on the phone with Together For Catalonia politicians, refreshing news articles, hoping for the results to hurry up and for his presidency to continue in the region. Carles Puigdemont, unlike many of his presidential rivals, was not in the Catalan capital of Barcelona with his speech prepared to address his adoring crowd, nor was he elsewhere in Catalonia, nor Spain for that matter. Carles Puigdemont was in Belgium having fled Spain where he was facing arrest for sedition and treason.

The reason for this? The very Catalan Republic that Carles had stated he was victorious for was for was not seen in the eyes of Spanish law, or the eyes of the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy – nor the European Union – as being a legal state. The independence referendum of the October 1st was stated to be illegal by Prime Minister Rajoy before, during, and after the vote which resulted in 92% of participants voting in favour of Catalonia’s sedition from the Kingdom of Spain.

The measures in which Mariano Rajoy attempted to prevent what he saw as an illegal referendum were at best misjudged and at worse a violent prevention of democracy that Spain had not seen since the dictatorship days of General Franco.

As the sun rose in Barcelona on the 1st October 2017 to a clear and sunny morning, a sense of excitement, nervousness, and fear had clouded the city. The referendum, they knew, was likely not to have the result accepted by the Spanish Government. What Catalan citizens saw as their right to democratically and peacefully voice their opinion came face-to-face with police officers wielded with batons and rubber bullets, with the latter being illegal to use in Catalonia since 2014 who saw those who voted or encouraged the voting in the referendum as being criminals.

[Credit: Robert Bonet from Wikimedia Commons]
However, what many did not expect was the violence that ensued. The Spanish Government had decided that the way to prevent an illegal vote was to close down polling booths and remove referendum documentation. The Catalan Health Service state that 1066 people required hospital care as a result of the independence referendum, of which 12 were police officers.

Images which appeared to show an elderly woman bleeding from the face were found to have true images of the violence that many received from Spanish Police Officers, with videos also appearing to show individuals being physically abused by officers with one video, in particular, showing terrified citizens sat inside voting booths being kicked, pushed down a small flight of stairs, and dragged outside. The use of violence in a state has long been agreed as a measure only acceptable by those given the responsibility to yield such power when required. However, the use of violent force by police officers, which was later endorsed by the Spanish Government, went far beyond what would be expected to be seen as acceptable.

As horrendous as witnessing state-endorsed violence on citizens and on firefighters, who aimed to create a barricade between citizens and police officers, must have been, the aftermath of the events offers a damaged view of democracy in Europe.

The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, acknowledged the violence that occurred but failed to condemn these actions, instead stating that this was an internal issue for the Spanish Government to resolve. Although Mr Johnson was merely mimicking the UK Government’s position not to interfere in the Catalan Reference due to Brexit proceedings and wishing to not damage relations with a key trade partner, the belief that state violence and silencing of opposition voices in Catalonia was an internal issue could not be further from the truth.

Widespread lack of condemnation of the violence from the EU and the UK show a worrying lack of compassion for the victims of violence and a dangerous approach going forward. Although the referendum was believed by the Spanish Government to have been illegal, the approach to preventing this should not and cannot be ignored or not condemned as the use of violence against non-violent citizens who are expressing different views to the state begin to blur the lines between democratic and dictatorship practices.

The Catalan Referendum was as much about to right to democracy as it was about Catalonia sedition. Prime Minister Rajoy could have simply ignored the results of the referendum without requiring police interference and still have made the decision to charge Carles Puigdemont with treason and close down the Catalan Parliament, as he has done, without the need for violence. The results would not have been any different but 1066 people would not have required medical assistance.

Major European nations, and the EU as a whole need to learn from the violence surrounding the Catalan Referendum of 2017 and condemn any and all violence by states against citizens. Failure to do so is likely to result in further violence within the European Union. Spain was in a dictatorship as recently as 1975. The actions of Prime Minister Rajoy have not caused Spain to become a dictatorship again, but the trust in the state looking out for the well-being and safety of its citizens, two core beliefs of democracy, have surely damaged democracy as a whole.

[Credit: Màrius Montón on Wikimedia Commons]
Those in Catalonia did not expect that Spain would accept the referendum results and many surely were not expecting the Catalan Republic to develop out of this vote. After all, those voting knew that they were going against what the government had decided was legal. However, the messages of “democracia” that could be seen around Catalonia following the violence shows that citizens were as upset about citizens being punished for not being able to express themselves as they were about the violence that ensued.

Carles Puigdemont won the Catalan Presidency but with the fear of arrest looming over him should he re-enter Spain, those who voted for him have to wait to see if their President will even be able to attend his own inauguration. One thing is for certain, the Spanish Government need to avoid the same mistakes exhibited on the 1st of October to keep those in Catalonia believing in democracy and the Spanish state.

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What the Catalonia Referendum teaches us about democracy