Different perceptions of democracy underpin stand-off in Catalonia

Elections on December 21, 2017, in Catalonia only contributed to maintain  Spain’s political stalemate. While the biggest individual winner was the pro-constitution and anti-nationalist party Ciudadanos, pro-independence parties (ERC, Junts per Catalunya and CUP) garnered enough votes to revalidate their majority in the Catalan parliament.

The stand-off displays two contrasting definitions of democracy: for the pro-independence movement, it is that of self-determination. For the Spanish government, it is the rule of law directed by a constitution approved by the constituents.

Since last October, when he fled to Belgium under fear of arrest, former Catalonian president Carles Puigdemont has claimed to still be the legitimate leader. Recently he pleaded that he be allowed return to be proclaimed president. He had been nominated by the Speaker of the new Catalan parliament, Roger Torrent.

However, the Spanish government has repeatedly argued that it will block any attempt to nominate him, and were he to set afoot in the country he would immediately be placed under arrest. It denies any possibility of a president in absentia. On the other hand, Madrid claims it will respect any pro-independence candidate who is not under investigation. Is Puigdemont the legitimate leader of Catalonia? The answer depends on one’s interpretation of democracy.

Although the waters seem to have calmed, the Catalan autonomous region still lacks a government, and another institutional confrontation is in place. While both sides accuse each other of being anti-democratic, this political crisis stems from two very different understandings.

What is liberal democracy?

What constitutes a liberal democracy? According to political theorist Robert Dahl, a liberal democracy stems from a number of equally important characteristics: governmental decision-making is constitutionally vested in elected officials; officials are elected in frequent, free and fair popular polls; all adult citizens have voting rights and civil rights; all adult citizens have the right to run for public office and be elected; full freedom of speech and expression for all without retribution; free and uncensored information and media sources, protected and available to citizens; citizens have the right of association and can form political parties or interest groups with equal access.

Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, who studied political transitions to democracy, concluded that there needs to be a clear and effective separation of powers and the rule of law. This is to guarantee the rights and liberties of the people. Although there is no such thing as a perfect democracy, the more closely a state meets all these equally important conditions, the more democratic its system is.

For Catalan pro-independence supporters, the Spanish state is far from fully democratic. The pro-independence campaigners claim that they have a legitimate right to decide their political and national future through self-determination: a universal right fully recognized by the United Nations which states that “a people, based on respect for the principle of equal rights and fair equality of opportunity, have the right to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status with no interference”. In September 2017, almost 82 percent of the Catalan people believed that it was Catalonia’s legitimate right to hold a binding referendum on independence. The referendum took place on October 1.

The Spanish state had repeatedly rejected the possibility of a referendum. Madrid’s argument is that such a measure is not included in the country’s constitution, which says the only authority to call a binding referendum is the central government.

On the other hand, those parties in Catalonia and the rest of Spain which support the constitution argue that it is the pro-independence side who is anti-democratic and has broken the established norms of coexistence. This argument stems from the firm believe in the rule of law, a law established by Spain’s 1978 constitution (supported by more than 90 percent of Catalan voters at the time) which they argue was designed to guarantee that all Spanish citizens have equal rights and duties. Therefore, when the Catalan pro-independence parties decided to break the “Estatut” (the legal political framework for Catalonia), they overstepped the law and undermined the rights of the rest of the Catalan and Spanish citizens. The clash was set up, and images of Spanish police brutally cracking down on those Catalan people who decided to vote on October 1 are now part of the country’s history.

After the vote, in which close to 43 percent of the Catalan electorate voted (90 percent of them in favor of seceding) the Catalan political leaders declared Catalonia’s unilateral independence on October 27. The Spanish government immediately condemned the move, and the Spanish constitutional court once again declared it illegal. Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s prime minister, proceeded to dismiss the entire autonomous government and apply constitutional article 155, which allows the central government to directly intervene and take over any autonomous government that acts against the state. The Spanish courts ordered the immediate arrest of the Catalan leaders in charge of the unilateral declaration of independence and new autonomous elections were called.

Political prisoners – or not

While some of the most important Catalan cabinet members were arrested and placed in jail, Puigdemont and a few of his “consellers” escaped to Brussels to avoid prosecution. Again, a battle was in place to claim for democratic legitimacy: are the politicians who have been arrested political prisoners?

A political prisoner is a person who is imprisoned for his political beliefs or actions. The Spanish government and international and independent organizations such as Amnesty International have rejected the allegations (link to La Vanguardia in Spanish) that the Catalan political leaders are political prisoners, for they had clearly been able to defend their ideas and beliefs freely before breaking the law.

However, pro-independence supporters consider them to be the victims of an anti-democratic backlash by the Spanish state, which they claim lacks an independent judiciary system (see my previous article on the alleged lack of independence of the judiciary system). While some of them have been released (those who abandoned the unilateral declaration of independence and will abide by the constitution) four of the main leaders remain in jail awaiting trial.


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