What is democracy? The word has been too often used and abused on both sides

Photo credits: Catalunya Diari.

In the photo above, pro-independence protesters hold a sign that reads “referendum is democracy”. The evening after the referendum, the Spanish central government pereived it as an attack on democracy, and the PM Mariano Rajoy, of the ruling People’s Party, went so far as to praise the national police for their actions. Both the Spanish government and the independence movement see themselves as champions, not only of the law, but of democracy. Who is right? 

Most people think modern democracy is a legacy of the Greek city states. In ancient Greek, dëmos means people and kratia means power. The real story is a bit more complicated. The Greeks wanted a system of government compatible with freedom: a system in which the citizens lived together under conditions of no-rule, without a division between rulers and ruled. They termed this ideal “isonomy”, or equality in relation to the law. Unlike monarchy, or oligarchy, or even democracy, the word isonomy does not contain the suffixes “archy” or “cracy”, both of which imply rule. In isonomy, people were not supposed to rule over others but to act together by ruling themselves. The word “democracy”, on the contrary, was understood as majority rule, the rule of the many, and it was originally used by those who opposed to isonomy.

They meant to say: what you say is “no-rule” is in fact only another kind of rulership; it is the worst form of rulership, the tyranny of the majority.

Now you may think this is a fair price to pay to give people the power. After all, there is something very, very special and exciting that we only experience in coming together with other people in order to act, as equals, politically, forgetting for a moment class and other differences, purely to reclaim our right to have a say. Popular movements are the closest we can get to isonomy in the modern world. They are about solidarity and consensus. They are the sort of thing to inspire a “sympathy bordering on enthusiasm”, as Kant would say. The referendum last month was one such event – which is not to say it should have led to a declaration of independence. It was staged without the necessary guarantees, and some people are said to have voted twice or faked ballots – I am sure some did. The point, though, is that most people didn’t. Most people were quite happy to cast a ballot to resolve an issue they had cared so deeply about for years. Still others volunteered to hide the ballot boxes, to drive them over from France, to ingeniously protect polling stations, to ensure that everything happened as smoothly and seriously as possible on the day.

I was there as it happened – and I thought it was the most beautiful thing our country had ever done.

What some call a “coup” was not an act of violence – but of politics, which is its exact opposite. I do not know how good it was as a referendum, and I certainly think a turnout of 43% cannot justify independence. But there certainly was a lot of the original idea of democracy in it.

Unfettered majority rule, however, can also be dangerous. This is why so many countries (all of them, almost) have constitutions that, by demanding a qualified (2/3s) majority for certain major changes, protect the status quo. A constitution, when it is widely respected, ensures that whatever is voted in by a simple majority is recognised as a legitimate decision by those who voted against it. Some say this protects democracy. This is the position of the Spanish government, of course. In one sense, that is obvious; in another, it is misleading. For nothing could really save democracy if enough people were willing to vote against it. As Mr Erdogan has showed us, constitutions can change – if voters are sufficiently terrorised or deluded, they can change also for worse. The only thing a constitution can really do, once it has lost the respect of voters, is constrain democracy, and the majority, to make it a bit more difficult for them to act against themselves and, very importantly, against minorities. So those who speak of the rule of law, of which a LOT more can be said than I will in this article, mean to ensure that people are bound by the constitution rather than a simple majority decision that defies it. And there are good reasons for doing this. The referendum was not just illegal. If Catalonia somehow manages to secede from Spain – constitutionally or otherwise – we will be out of the EU, possibly for ever, and our short-to-medium terms economic prospects are catastrophic.

Even if the pro-independence movement had the support of more than half of the Catalan people – and it is not clear that it does – there would be a point in trying to protect a minority who is deeply opposed to it from such a big change.

A legitimate referendum should be supported by 2/3s of the Catalan parliament, and a legitimate declaration of independence should be backed by 2/3s of the Catalan people.

To further complicate matters, however – may I briefly point out the fact that more than 70% of catalans do, in fact, support a mutually agreed, legally binding referendum as a solution to the current crisis. So why does the Spanish government not concede it? Part of it is Mariano Rajoy courting his most conservative supporters. Part of it is that a change of this sort in the constitutions would require approval not just of a qualified majority of Catalan people, but a majority in Spain as a whole. It is very likely that there will never be such a majority. The constitution, which is supposed to raise the threshold for democracy, will end up constraining that one thing which, in Catalonia, does command very wide majority support. The constitution has turned, quite ironically, a majority in one area into a minority state-wide.

This is not a problem of the Spanish constitution alone. It is a danger for any country in which patriotism fades and people break into regional alliances that refuse to speak to each other.

It is a problem for any country in which state-wide parties loose support in particular regions and the results for state-wide elections look something like this:

Catalexit II
Photo credits: Diario Informacion

For state-level parliamentary elections last June, the map above shows the party with the most votes in every Spanish province. In blue is PP is the ruling conservative party; in red are the socialists, who argue for limited changes to the constitution but refuse to grant a referendum and supported Mr Rajoy’s inauguration as PM; in purple is the far-left Podemos party, which supports a referendum but commands wide support only in Catalonia and the Basque country; in yellow is the Catalan Republican Left. A good number of Catalan voters support a referendum as a way out of this crisis. But this position has not taken hold in Spain as a whole.

Who am I siding with, then – the separatists? Sort of. My point is that democracy and constitutionalism are not the same, nor have they always gone together. Constitutions are intended to constrain democracy, they are meant as a safe-guard democracy against itself and majority rule. And the latter is sometimes a good, sometimes a bad thing.


By: Elvira Colomer Fatjo


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