The ongoing political conflict between the government of Spain and the Generalitat of Catalonia over the issue of Catalan independence has once again proved that referendum could be a dangerous weapon in a democratic structure.
Sometimes, referendum brings near anarchy in a country, making it difficult for the democratic constitution to tackle the situation. Although the outcome of a referendum reflects public opinion, often the collective opinion of the people lacks proper understanding of the social needs. Sometimes, public opinion also lacks a vision.
Freedom-loving Spanish province of Catalonia has always wanted to leave the European country and emerge as a separate state. In 1922, a political movement began under the leadership of Francesc Macià, who founded the Estat Català (Catalan State) party. Later in 1931, Estat Català and other parties joined hands to form Esquerra Republicana de Catalunya (Republican Left of Catalonia or ERC) and Macià proclaimed a Catalan Republic. Madrid had no other option, but to accept Catalonia’s autonomy within the Spanish state. However, General Francisco Franco abolished the Catalan autonomy during the Spanish Civil War in 1938. And Catalan political parties decided to concentrate on autonomy rather than independence only after Franco’s death in 1975.
On October 1, 2017, the ‘separatist’ province held a referendum and 90% of people voted in favour of Catalan independence. The outcome of the referendum makes it clear that they want a separate nation. The outcome also prompted the Mariano Rajoy government in Madrid to declare that the Catalonia administration insulted the constitution by demanding separation. Prime Minister Rajoy announced that he was stripping Catalonia of its autonomy and imposing direct rule from Madrid in an attempt to crush the regional leadership’s move to secede. According to Rajoy, the Catalan government’s powers will be returned to Madrid, as the central government will impose direct rule there within days. The announcement, which prompted anger across Catalonia, has escalated Spain’s deepest constitutional crisis since the restoration of democracy in 1977.
Catalonia’s push for independence and its conflict with Spain are old issues. Traditionally, the Spanish kings used to consider the economically and culturally developed areas in Catalonia as their colonies. During Franco’s rule, Madrid even banned Catalonia’s own language. In fact, there are four languages with official status in Catalonia – Catalan; Spanish, which is official throughout the country; Aranese, a dialect of Occitan spoken in the Aran Valley; and Catalan Sign Language. Nearly 75% of the people use Catalan language that is different from the original Spanish language. Catalonia, which has an older liberal tradition, has always welcomed foreigners and created a different society and culture. So, it is quite natural for the residents of this region to raise the slogan – ‘Catalonia for the Catalans’.
However, there is a difference between the demand for a separate province and the demand for a separate state. And, herein lies the problem. As Barcelona has declared a war against Madrid, it is not possible to resolve the crisis on the basis of a regional referendum. It may trigger a new and worst crisis. We can easily become emotional and back the demand for autonomy, but it will not be a wise decision to support the idea of autonomy that encourages separatism.
The current crisis in Spain is easily understandable. The people of Catalonia should learn a lesson from the Brexit referendum. Brexit shows that outcome of a referendum is very emotional, but not always logical. The Catalan referendum, too, proves that referendum can’t solve all the problems of a modern state.