Deny­ing ref­er­en­dum sends out a shrill mes­sage

Sup­port­ing Cat­alo­nia’s right to di­vorce does not mean en­dors­ing it. But when democ­racy comes un­der at­tack any­where, we must show sol­i­dar­ity

Gulf News - - OPINON -

t is dif­fi­cult to dis­sent from the sum­mary de­liv­ered by Barcelona’s deputy mayor, Ger­ardo Pis­arello, of Cat­alo­nia’s po­lit­i­cal plight: “There are those who walk with a lighter in the mid­dle of a petrol sta­tion full of fuel.” At stake is a ba­sic demo­cratic prin­ci­ple: The right to na­tional self-de­ter­mi­na­tion — “the right to de­cide”, as the Cata­lan slo­gan has it. You do not have to sup­port Cata­lan in­de­pen­dence to sup­port this prin­ci­ple — just as ac­cept­ing the right to di­vorce does not mean en­dors­ing a cou­ple’s sep­a­ra­tion. Imag­ine one part­ner in a mar­riage ex­press­ing doubts about whether the re­la­tion­ship is work­ing, and the other ve­to­ing not only a di­vorce, but any dis­cus­sion of such an out­come. It would not only be an af­front: It would sim­ply fuel the de­sire for a sep­a­ra­tion on the part of the spouse. This has been the net con­se­quence of the Span­ish gov­ern­ment’s pig­head­ed­ness, its ru­inous eco­nomic poli­cies, its re­fusal to ne­go­ti­ate — and its bru­tal clam­p­down on civil lib­er­ties in Cat­alo­nia.

The Cata­lan pres­i­dent, Car­les Puigde­mont, has shown com­mend­able re­straint af­ter a ref­er­en­dum in which Span­ish po­lice dragged el­derly women by their hair and in­jured hun­dreds of cit­i­zens ex­er­cis­ing the most ba­sic demo­cratic right of all: The right to vote. More rad­i­cal ele­ments are ag­i­tat­ing for a uni­lat­eral dec­la­ra­tion of in­de­pen­dence; Puigde­mont has post­poned such a move to al­low for ne­go­ti­a­tions.

But when the likes of Rafael Her­nando — spokesman for Spain’s rul­ing Peo­ple’s party — de­scribes a pro-democ­racy Cata­lan gen­eral strike as a “po­lit­i­cal Nazi-style strike”, there is clearly pre­cious lit­tle good­will for dis­cus­sions in Madrid. The dan­ger now is if Spain’s right-wing gov­ern­ment ac­ti­vates Ar­ti­cle 155 of the coun­try’s con­sti­tu­tion, sup­press­ing Cata­lan au­ton­omy.

Cat­alo­nia can­not be un­der­stood in iso­la­tion. Here is an­other man­i­fes­ta­tion of the cri­sis en­velop­ing the western world: An­other mor­bid symp­tom of a de­cay­ing sys­tem. “2017 may be the year when pol­i­tics fi­nally caught up with the crash of 2008,” is how Jeremy Cor­byn hailed Labour’s re­cent surge, but the eco­nomic cri­sis spawned a vast ar­ray of po­lit­i­cal re­sponses. It fu­elled a new Left that ranged from Greece’s Syriza, Bri­tain’s Cor­bynism and Bernie San­ders in the United States. It helped pro­pel right-wing xeno­pho­bic pop­ulism, from Don­ald Trump to Farageism (Nigel Farage), France’s Front Na­tional and the Aus­trian far-right. It cer­tainly played a crit­i­cal role in the Brexit re­sult. But the crash also un­doubt­edly acted as a mid­wife for a surge in civic na­tion­al­ism in Scot­land and Cat­alo­nia.

And six years ago pro­test­ers — the in­dig­na­dos — oc­cu­pied squares across Spain, in­clud­ing in Barcelona: It was the be­gin­ning of the end for a two-party es­tab­lish­ment that had ruled the coun­try since the end of Franco. But the po­lit­i­cal dis­il­lu­sion­ment that has be­come one of the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of our age found a home in Cat­alo­nia.

Res­o­lu­tion to the cri­sis

The gov­ern­ing cen­tre-right na­tion­al­ist forces cap­i­talised on this mood, de­mand­ing that ei­ther the gov­ern­ment of Span­ish Prime Min­is­ter Mar­i­ano Ra­joy de­volved more fi­nan­cial sovereignty, or Cat­alo­nia would be off. As the in­de­pen­dence forces called for Cata­lans to es­cape the Span­ish sys­tem, Pode­mos — Spain’s new Left party — and its al­lies called for the sys­tem to be over­turned.

The Euro­pean Union has failed to ex­plic­itly con­demn Ra­joy’s be­hav­iour. It must now ex­ert pres­sure on Spain’s gov­ern­ment to ne­go­ti­ate with Puigde­mont and other politi­cians. The Cana­dian and Bri­tish gov­ern­ments al­lowed in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dums in Que­bec and Scot­land. Surely, the Cata­lan peo­ple too should be al­lowed a free and fair vote with­out be­ing bru­talised by riot po­lice. While the left­ist Pode­mos party has sided with this demo­cratic ar­gu­ment, the op­po­si­tion So­cial­ists — un­der pres­sure from more con­ser­va­tive ele­ments — have so far failed to sup­port what is surely the only pos­si­ble res­o­lu­tion to this cri­sis.

I have lit­tle truck with pro-in­de­pen­dence move­ments un­less a na­tion is op­pressed, like those sub­ju­gated by Europe’s for­mer great pow­ers — and Cat­alo­nia is not. Sup­port­ing Cat­alo­nia’s right to di­vorce does not mean en­dors­ing it. But when democ­racy comes un­der at­tack any­where, it is our col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity to show sol­i­dar­ity.

There are those who point to the ex­pe­ri­ence of Scot­land and to Brexit, and say that all ref­er­en­dums do is bit­terly di­vide na­tions. But the de­nial of a ref­er­en­dum in Cat­alo­nia has al­ready done just that. If the Span­ish gov­ern­ment had ac­tively wanted to drive Cat­alo­nia away, it is dif­fi­cult to know what it would have done dif­fer­ently. It bears the great­est re­spon­si­bil­ity for this cri­sis.

Ul­ti­mately, only a new Span­ish gov­ern­ment that ad­dresses the en­demic so­cial and eco­nomic griev­ances af­flict­ing Cat­alo­nia can guar­an­tee that Spain does not fall apart. But this Span­ish gov­ern­ment has built a pres­sure cooker that is ready to blow. colum­nist.

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