One of the emotionally charged issues regarding the Catalonian independence movement is the famous referendum, or R word, as I call it, because it’s probably the debate that irritates both ends more than any. It’s the event that has contributed to both sides ramming head on into each other. It’s also where you have to deal with the most absurd argument of this argument and probably the most childish behavior.
First of all, let me make it clear that I have always been in favor of a referendum for a couple of reasons, not the least being that people should and do have a right to decide what they want to be. A chance to determine their own future, so to speak. Especially if enough of them want it to happen. It’s as universal a right as you can get. I also feel that not allowing a referendum has been one of the Spanish government’s weakest links in its defence of unity. It makes it look inflexible and authoritarian (not a good thing as we still live in the wake of the Franco era), foolishly democratically unfriendly, especially when comparisons are made with Scotland and Quebec (though I’d like to see Vermont try to hold a referendum and see what the federal government would say), and finally, it was just a plain marketing blunder on their part. You can say what you want about the Catalans, but they always have to referendum on their side.
In my humble opinion, Spain had a golden opportunity a few years ago. They could have allowed a referendum, assisted in its process and handling, ensured it was done correctly and, barring some catastrophe, won by a sizable margin, because, let’s face it, the numbers weren’t there for the secessionists. Not by a long shot. And then the Spanish government could have always shown the world, “hey, they had their chance.” But that’s neither here nor there. They didn’t. Why?
1. First of all, because the constitution does not contemplate this eventuality. Once you’re in, you’re in for good. Honest Abe Lincoln certainly would have seconded that, and the Spanish government certainly does too.
2. There is nagging worry that if the central government allowed the separatist Catalans to have a stab at self-determination, they would in some ways being granting legitimacy to their cause, which in many ways would undermine the previously mentioned belief that independence is not an option. So why let them vote on it? There is some logic to this argument, which is a rarity in this story.
3. Even if they did allow a plebiscite to take place and a predictable NO vote against independence was to take the day, chances are the separatists would fight on. In other words, the referendum would only be valid when the desired result was finally obtained. That sort of makes sense because independence supporters have a record of behaving in such a way.
4. They argue that over the past forty years, Catalonia has held plenty of regional elections which in their own way give the Catalans a right to express their feelings.
5. They didn’t feel like it.
Some hardcore Spaniards advocate a referendum but insist that all of Spain have a say in the matter, which is utter balderdash, as the results would be a foregone conclusion and the real subjects involved would be totally overlooked. A mental masturbation by ultra-conservative unionists envisions the rest of the country voting to actually oust the region from Spain. Now wouldn’t that be funny. Catalonia would probably stay in if only to defy the will of Spain!!!
Regardless, whether the central government liked it or not, time finally came for a referendum. The year was 2014, and the president of the region, Artur Mas, had decided that Catalonia needed to decide its own future, for a whole bunch of reasons. These included growing frustration with the way the goverment was handling the economic recession, and another had to do with the Constitutional Court, at the behest of the PP, repealed or retouched 13 articles from the newly signed agreement from 2006. This supposedly infuriated the Catalans, though the remaining 215 articles were apparently left alone.
As usual, the national government opposed the idea, the national parliament rejected it by a landslide and the courts outright banned it? But the Catalans went ahead with it anyway, passing laws that made their aims possible and thus sidestepping protocol. There has been a consistency with this. If playing by the rules doesn’t get you what you want…just change the rules. The vote was no longer a referendum but rather a legally vague term known as a Consulta. This sort of semantic fooling around has run rampant on both ends.
Mas also made a few astute adjustments regarding just who could vote. Three new groups were added: legal residents from foreign countries, minors who were 16 and 17, and just about any voter from abroad who ever spent a day in Catalonia. There were unquestionable benefits to their inclusion. The foreigners living in Catalonia would be less likely to feel allegiance to Spain as a whole and prone to identifying with the interests of the region; the teenagers were from a generation of Catalan youth heavily influenced by years of schooling where anti-Spain sentiment was widespread; and clearly anyone who wanted to send a message from abroad, it was apt to be the kind of individual who adopted a kind of nostalgia for the motherland or fatherland or homeland, what have you. Few examiners have picked up on these details, but I can assure you, they were important.
The vote took place in many schools and was financed in part with public money, even though it had been declared illegal. It was held on November 9, and this time the police didn’t decide to bash heads, thank God. The day transpired without an incident. To date, it was as close to a true plebiscite on self-determination as they have ever come.
The next day, the Generalitat (Catalonia’s government) announced that a whopping 81% had voted in favor of independence. It was an overwhelming majority. A landslide. Mas jumped all over the results and claimed it was a rousing success, which of course, it wasn’t. Here’s why. The finagling of participation eligibility meant no one really knew just how many people could potentially vote. But one was for sure, it was a lot more than usual. The number of final voters hovered around the 2.3 million mark, and that, while no small figure, constitutes about 37% of the voting population (according to the most serious estimates). 81% of that percentage means that in reality, only about 30% voted in favor of breaking away. That’s right, 30%.
Some may argue that participation was low because the consultation was rendered illegal, but let’s face it, when people want to be defiant, those matters are of little importance. If larger numbers had wanted to flock to the polls, they could have. But they chose not to. All the same, the separatists were sharp about getting that 81% number out there, and it’s still referred to in international stories on the subject. Mas had managed to turn what I considered to be semi-flop into a great achievement. It would not be the first time or the last.
The central government completely misread the situation and wasted a golden opportunity. They dismissed the vote as illegal and inconsequential. It had no validity, so who cared? Well, a lot of people did. Afterall, 2.3 million voters is nothing to turn your nose up at. Mas didn’t have a lot to work with, but he had enough to make noise. Plus, it seemed pretty much clear as day that, were a formal referendum to be held, the no vote was a shoe in. The unionists had it in the bag. And once they had held one, no one, absolutely no one could say Catalonia was never given its chance.
So instead of capitalizing on the situation, the national government did what irresponsible people do when they are in debt and get a bill in the mail. They turned on the TV really loud, watched endless episodes of Pawn Stars, and pretended it didn’t exist. It just never happened. This total lack of regard for the Catalan independence movement, this foolish hope that it would just go away by itself, was a whole lot of wishful thinking. Why? Plus, it was a little late for that.