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29 September 2017updated 04 Sep 2021 5:47pm

Like Brexit, the Catalan independence vote isn’t quite as democratic as it seems

The regional government isn't blameless for the chaos ahead of Sunday's referendum.

By David Mathieson

If politics is about winning hearts and minds, the government of Spain has conclusively lost an important battle against Catalan independence. 

The regional government based in Barcelona has called a referendum on Sunday which will ask Catalonians whether they want to live in a republic separate from the rest of Spain. A yes vote will lead to immediate declaration of secession.

The heavy handed response of the government in Madrid has produced the most appalling scenes in Catalonia. Heavy-booted paramilitary civil guard forces have been dispatched to the region in an effort to stop the vote. More than a dozen of the political operatives organising the poll have been arrested (with more detentions threatened), hundreds of ballot boxes seized and millions of voting papers impounded even as they roll off the printing press. 

In a country where most people over 50 were born under the regime of a fascist dictator, General Franco, the images are spine-chilling. These pictures, and the Catalan government’s cry of “foul”, have echoed around Europe successfully drowning out a far more complex debate. 

But progressives should not be misled. The radical nationalist and separatist administration in Barcelona is far from blameless: it too should take responsibility for the political chaos about to hit the region. The nationalists try to frame the argument as one between a united Catalan society yearning to be free and an oppressive Spanish government. Like the Brexiteers who blame Brussels for British woes, the Catalan separatists damn Madrid for the region’s problems. 

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But it isn’t that simple. “Catexit”, like Brexit in the UK, is an incendiary issue which divides families, friends and communities in the region. For their own reasons, both the Catalan and Spanish governments have generated confrontation to distract from deep-rooted problems such as endemic corruption and unemployment. Both sides seem determined on pursuing a conflict which will do immense damage and was wholly avoidable.

The proposal to hold a referendum on independence was sprung on the Catalan parliament with virtually no notice at the begining of September. Fresh from their summer break opposition parties were kept in the dark and caught unawares. No amendments to the proposal were allowed in a debate which lasted less than half a day. 

Not surprisingly, the non-nationalist parties refused to take part in the legislative farce and walked out before the vote so the new Republic, if it happens, will have been born in a half empty chamber with only MPs from the governing parties in their seats. More importantly, the missing MPs from the oppostion parties actually represent more than half the voters in the region. 

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Like Theresa May in Britain, the Catalan president Carles Puidgemont governs with a slender majority based on a on a minority of the popular vote. Like the process of “taking back control” in Britain, the process of “taking back control” in Catalonia will be completed only by bypassing the normal rules of parliamentary scrutiny. 

For all the talk about democracy, the paving legislation for this referendum has been rammed through a parliament using votes won under a less than proportional electoral system. The leader of the Catalan socialists, Miguel Iceta, has accused the nationalist administration of violating the “rules of the parliament, the rights of the opposition, the statute of Catalonia and the Spanish constitution”, in calling the referendum. That is a hell of a charge list for any government to answer, let alone one which claims to be ushering a new dawn of democratic self-determination.

What will happen on Sunday and in the following days is anyone’s guess. Like Brexit this referendum will have consequences which both are profound and unknowable. The veteran socialist leader Felipe Gonzalez, Spain’s longest serving prime minister in the post-Franco era, says he is now more worried about the country than at any time for the past 40 years. That, at least, is a judgement about the situation with which most Spaniards and Catalans will agree.