October 1, 2015
Catalonia will not “take a step back”
Interpreting last Sunday’s results of the Elections to the Parliament of Catalonia is not an easy task. The Catalan government called early elections with a clear objective: to assess the strength of the secessionist sentiment in Catalonia.
There are several reasons why it chose to do so:
- A solid majority of the Catalan Parliament favored the right to self-determination.
- The Spanish government had repeatedly denied the Catalans the right to vote on the matter, despite 80% of the population in favor of putting the question to a vote, according to polls.
- For four consecutive years, Catalonia’s National Day had seen massive peaceful rallies of over one million Catalans who took to the streets to express their preference for the creation of an independent state.
- The Spanish Government continuously gave excuses for not establishing a dialogue by claiming there was “a silent majority against independence in Catalonia” which could not be proven.
- The non-binding popular vote on independence -which took place on November 9, 2014 and recorded more than 2.25 million votes- was proscribed, categorically rejected, and ridiculed by the Spanish Government. It led to yesterday’s formal indictment of the President of Catalonia -Artur Mas- who has been accused of disobedience, embezzlement of public funds (to finance the vote) and usurpation of powers.
- Positive results would legitimize the “mandate of the streets” and the Catalan government’s will to move forward with the process towards independence.
Sunday’s record-setting turnout (77.44% of eligible voters) yielded a clear parliamentary majority for candidates favoring independence (but differing on the details), while the interpretation of the popular vote has provided grist for political commentators of all stripes. Understanding this result requires an understanding of the context.
In the election process, popular votes are translated into parliamentary seats for political parties. However, the pro-independence front wanted the parties to position themselves clearly on the issue of secession from Spain, so the support for secession (the Yes vote) could be clearly quantified. Not all of the parties agreed to this approach and tried to replace it with a more traditional right/left dichotomy. Therefore, the options evolved to present a complex scenario: 1) two lists of clearly pro-independence candidates, representing parties that signed on as “Junts pel Sí” (Together-for-the-Yes) and a small far-left party, CUP (Popular Unity Candidacy); 2) two parties clearly against independence (Citizens and the Popular Party, which governs Spain); 3) the Catalan Socialist Party, which demanded territorial/constitutional reform for Catalonia within Spain, and 4) two “Yes/No” parties (Union and Catalonia-Yes-We-can) that did not declare themselves for or against independence, focusing instead on a future constitutional reform within the Spanish State (both have openly pro-independence members in their ranks).
This complexity has resulted in many possible interpretations of the outcomes. In an election with very high turnout, the result (pending absentee ballot counts) showed 47.74% of the vote clearly in favor of independence, 39% against (including the somewhat ambiguous position of the Catalan Socialists), and 12% Yes/No. In a normal referendum such as that recently held in Scotland -which the Catalans would have preferred but the Spanish government refused- the rule of 50+1% could have been applied. However, this was not a proper referendum, and therefore the vote for or against independence cannot be calculated because of the votes that went to parties that did not take a clear position on the question. Moreover, 195,500 Catalans who reside abroad were entitled to vote – but many faced insurmountable obstacles. The much-criticized Loreg voting system has made it impossible for them to register or receive the ballots on time in every election held since it was implemented by the Spanish government in 2011. In this election, only 14,781 Catalans (7.5%) were able to cast their votes from abroad; 65% of those votes went to pro-independence parties. This scandal has gone pretty much unnoticed in the post-election commentary.
Given that clearly pro-independence parties won 72 of the 135 parliamentary seats up for election on September 27, these parties have an absolute majority in the new Parliament: 68 seats were required for that majority. If we look at the vote distribution from a slightly different perspective, a resounding 907 of the 942 municipalities in Catalonia (95.65%) voted for independence. Therefore it makes absolutely no sense when the FT claims that this victory does not give the pro-independence parliamentarians legitimacy to start implementing their parties’ plan towards independence.
This argument does not stand.
Catalans are well aware of the lack of a precedent in the case of a nation which becomes a state without violent conflict, of the lack of updated international law regarding such cases and of the difficulties to negotiate partition with a non-collaborative government like the one in Madrid, but that should not be a reason for them to abandon this democratic mandate. To ask President Mas to take a step back is to be out of touch with reality. While the Spanish government continues to ignore not only the strength of secessionism in Catalonia, but the results of valid elections, the Catalan parliament and its government finally have the legitimacy to initiate the transition to an independent state.
Catalans are also aware of the worry it may cause Spain to lose a wealthy part of its territory and the concern of other EU states that other territories may follow suit. Nonetheless, a democratic mandate cannot be ignored in a democratic Europe. Solutions and remedies for the consequences of the new order can be found. There is no evidence that the entire EU block will unravel when Catalonia secedes (many European countries have become independent in recent decades), nor that the secession will pose any serious risks for Spain and Catalonia, if both of them sit down to negotiate. A smooth transition to ensure stability is in everyone’s interest and some representation from within the EU that facilitates and arbitrates dialogue and negotiations would be a way to ensure that it happens. The time for catastrophic metaphors is over. The Catalans have voted: constructive action is what is needed now.
Coordinator of the Catalan National Assembly in the USA