Voting isn’t Democracy: the tipping point of the crisis that has plummeted Spain into chaos

Photo credits: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

Spain is a democratic, developed country built upon recent historic turmoil. With the death of Francisco Franco in 1975 Spain began a tough transition into democracy, culminated by the creation of the Spanish constitution in 1978. A variety of factors have contributed to the recent crisis in Catalonia, yet one not so often mentioned is the constitution itself, which has become both a cause and a solace throughout the ongoing tumult and uncertainty of the crisis.


Photo credits: AFA, The Telegraph

Being catapulted into democracy, the EU and the developed world, an optimistic and inexperienced constitution was written, within which the distinction and divisions between autonomous regions were vague and ill-defined. Part VIII of the constitution on ‘Territorial Organization of the State’ merely maps out the legal scene within which competencies are to be distributed amongst the self-governing communities, without even specifying the number of communities that are to exist, for it was written prior to the actual division of Spain into autonomous regions. Further, all regions have the same weight and thus hold no privileges over each other, and this has exacerbated regionalist sentiments in times of crisis, such as following the 2007 depression.  These flaws in the constitution are tangible through the ever-presence of strong regionalisms, mainly settled in the north of Spain. The first decades saw Spain terrorized by the Basque group, ETA. Today the spotlight is on Catalonia, and on one of the gravest democratic crises in the western world in the 21st century.

Spain has a codified constitution, as do other nations such as Germany or France, versus the jurisprudent constitutions of Britain and Canada. In the latter nations a referendum in a specific region, such as the one that took place in Scotland, is foreseen within the constitution, as it can be granted by a simple majority in the legislature. In contrast, only two nations in the world with codified constitutions allow for regional self-determination through a single-handed referendum: Ethiopia and Guinea Equatorial. So it wasn’t unreasonable for Spain to be distraught about Carles Puigdemont’s single-handed declaration of a referendum for independence. It was a fully illegal and unconstitutional move. Undemocratic, for it ignored the rule of law by which the whole country, which includes Catalonia, must abide. It was, quite literally, a coup d’état.

There seems to be a widespread misunderstanding regarding the attitude of the rest of Spain as an oppressive community who will not allow Catalonia to vote, to leave. A large portion of Spanish citizens defend dialogue[1] and furthermore, agree with a referendum to be held solely within Catalonia. They deserve to vote. Yet not like this. The only way this vote can take place and have any validity is if the constitution is amended first. Democratic states in the 21st century are defined by the rule of law because it sets the structure and legal basis that protects democracy itself, protecting freedom. They are not perfect, which is why constitutions are reformed, and new, improved structures are brought into place. But they can’t just be ignored.


Photo credits: Eric Gaillard, Reuters

Of course, the blame does not merely lie within Catalonia. The Spanish government has lacked foresight and political skill and completely mismanaged a crisis that stems back over many years. The self-destructive management of the crisis in September, and the horrific police violence strewn throughout the whole of Catalonia on the 1rst of October is atrocious and absolutely inexcusable. This is not who Spain is, or what Spain wants. Nonetheless, one terrible event does not validate another, and it is easy to lose sight of this when images of police brutality plague the media. Yes, the police brutality was unredeemable for a so-called developed democracy. And so was the holding of an unconstitutional ‘referendum’ in Catalonia.

Spain Catalonia

Photo credit: Manu Fernandez, Metro

The hypocrisy of the ‘referendum vote’ emanates from its absolute disregard for the democratic and human rights not just of the whole of Spain, but specifically of at least half of the Catalonian population: both those who don’t actually want independence, and also of  referendum or independence supporters, who nonetheless believe in legal means to achieve this. All of Spain’s democratic rights were made a mockery of by the egoism of a few who prioritized their cause over the protection of democracy. The referendum was approved in a half-empty Parlament, (the other MPs walked out due to the illegality of the subject being voted on). Urns were said to be found prior to the event’s beginning, stuffed with ballots– although this information has not been verified, it suggests fraud. A couple of hours prior to the vote the Catalonian government declared the creation of a ‘universal census’, enabling anyone to vote anywhere, thus eliminating official census lists or guidelines. In all fairness, various regions in Catalonia stuck to the original census and ensured an appropriate undertaking of the vote, but this was not the case all around: both news reporters and civilians proved the absolute invalidity of the ‘referendum’ by walking into various different polling stations in Catalonia voting various times. It was illegal, it was propaganda. But it was not a referendum.

There is, however, a light at the end of the tunnel. Although the 1-O crisis has fractured the fragile base of Spanish unity, the mass manifestations of civilians throughout the whole of Spain during the past week demanding dialogue, peace and real politics are a veridical representation of what kind of nation Spain is and wants to be. At least 400,000 individuals congregated in Barcelona on the 7th of October to defend a constitution previously considered a hindrance to the Spanish nation. It turns out that the document of 1978 is (currently) the only reliable source to protect the democratic freedom that generations still alive today strived and fought for incessantly during the 20th century.  It represents the Spanish population’s liberty, and it must be built upon, not torn to shreds.

The central government’s mismanagement of Catalonia’s nationalist sentiment and the continuous lack of a dependable party within Catalonia that makes use of legal tools to push the independentism cause forward detonated into a full blown crisis, which has left open wounds and fed past fires. It can still be stopped, however, if civilian demands are listened to, and politicians decide to do politics. Spain does not need more blood, it does not need more wounds. It needs representatives that we can look up to and respect, dialogue and compromise. It needs to revive its democracy.

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Photo credit: Reuters

By: Lara Santos Ayllón



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