The Catalonian Independence Referendum, an Immediate Aftermath

Felipe of Spain

Despite popular perception and widespread propaganda disguised as civic education to the contrary, democracy and constitutional government are conflicting doctrines.  Constitutions are specifically designed to limit what governing majorities can do and to constrain immediate action.  Add to that the oft cited but incoherently applied doctrine of popular self-determination, a purported pillar of international law, always ignored when convenient, and one has a formula for disaster, something made brutally clear in Catalonia on October 1, 2017; yesterday as this article is written and published.

Polarization tactics are being refined more and more, perhaps in a manner not seen since the rise of fascism in the 1920’s but now infused with massively improved communications technologies, all too frequently used to communicate misleading or inflammatory information.  In many cases polarization today is artfully crafted and implemented to inspire usefully negative reaction by those against whom it is employed.  Witness its constant use against the current president of the United States who, pierced by the constant stream of darts from a disloyal opposition (in many but not all cases justifiably so), stumbles around the circus Washington DC has become like a maddened bull.

The Spanish government’s reaction to yesterday’s Catalan independence referendum is a perfect example.  The Catalan leaders’ idea was to create a perfect lose – lose situation for the central government.  Although the referendum was clearly illegal and unconstitutional, by holding it anyway they hoped to either attain de facto legitimacy for their proposed independence or to manipulate the central government into confrontations, hopefully resulting in casualties, that the media could turn into a spectacle and thereby consolidate popular support.

They succeeded brilliantly.  As so often occurs in the United States and elsewhere, overwhelmed Spanish police fell into the trap of overreaction regardless of orders to the contrary and generated innocent victims and widely publicized devastating imagery.

Spain’s Catalan crisis is constitutional in the sense that Spain’s apparently progressive and modern constitution has been successfully flouted.  Progressive though it may be, perhaps a unitary form of government is not adequate to deal with a multinational state, a problem faced by the United Kingdom as well.  A hybrid decentralized form of government based on autonomous regions has not worked with respect to Catalonia, perhaps because degrees of regional autonomy are not equal in Spain, especially with respect to the Basques, an autonomous region of Spain comprised of three provinces, Álava, Biscay and Gipuzkoa.

Catalonia has never been wholly Spanish, having frequently and with some success rebelled (see generally “Contextualizing the Catalan Situation”).  Spain is a fusion of historically related yet different regions, somewhat united through the marriage of Queen Isabel of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon and a subsequent agreement in 1474 with respect to joint governance pursuant to which each remained sovereign within their own realms, a situation continued until 1516 when the Habsburg Charles I (also Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire) became the first king of a united Spain.

To an extent, Spain’s current quandary stems from the weakness of its current Peoples’ Party conservative government led by prime minister (technically president of the government) Mariano Rajoy Brey.  No majority exists in the Cortes and both the Basque Country and Catalonia voted for the insurgent Podemos opposition, although Rajoy managed to negotiate a coalition comprised of 170 of the 350 members of the Congress of Deputies because of the agreed upon abstention of 68 socialist deputies and the absence of another.  Not an ideal position from which to face a well-orchestrated constitutional crisis (see generally “Spain avoids third election and ends 10-month political impasse”) and one that may well dissolve, if not tomorrow, then all too soon.

Still, Spain, unlike other countries may have an out, one that has saved it in the past, royal intervention.  But the current king is not Juan Carlos that once was.  King Felipe VI’s ability to handle critical situations personally is at best untested.  And what might he do anyway?  Well, he might again dissolve the Cortes as he did during the 2016 crisis and call new elections, although new elections in the midst of an almost de facto civil war may prove unwise and at any rate, it would seem the crisis requires a constitutional rather than a political solution; a revised constitution perhaps along more federalist lines, although it may already be too late for that.  Juan Carlos might have been able to manage a charismatic appeal for popular support when he was younger, as he did when he almost personally defeated military attempts to re-impose a dictatorship at the start of his reign, but Felipe VI may not share that ability, nor are the times conducive to such intervention (see generally “Felipe, Spain’s king (maker)”).

Catalan independence is not popular in the rest of Spain and a nationwide referendum would surely have lost which is why Catalan independence leaders limited it to Catalonia; it might well have lost there as well had not Rajoy employed such heavy-handed tactics.  After all, it was the Spanish Supreme Court, packed with appointees of Rajoy’s political party, which started the crisis by declaring a negotiated solution unconstitutional, creating a situation when the rule of law, clashing with competently orchestrated political factors, seems to have been overwhelmed, but then again, that becomes more probable when legal institutions become politicized, as in the United States today.  A national referendum would have been the brilliant counterstroke required to dodge the current crisis but Rajoy does not seem to be a brilliant politician, perhaps not even an adequate one although, as usual, time will tell.

A wise advisor seeking to keep Spain united after the referendum debacle might still urge the Spanish government to call for a national referendum even now but far enough in the future for memories of the vividly orchestrated imagery of apparent police brutality to fade and for cold hard arguments based on economic consequences to be made, but Catalan firebrands are sure to keep stoking the fires of independence and ought certainly to oppose such a proposal which they would be likely to lose.  The entertainment-focused mainstream media can probably be counted on to fan their flames, whether illusory or real, so that would probably be their best tactic.

And what of the European Union?

Well, almost every member state is beset with separatist movements (see “Catalan Complexities and Contradictory Reactions Considered, at Least Briefly”) and thus, while it is likely to decry overreaction by the Spanish police, being a states controlled confederation it is likely, as an institution, to play one game at the public relations level and a very different game on the level of actual action supportive of Catalan independence.  It may find itself, like the United States at the verge of the Civil War, facing the inconsistencies between its foundational documents’ guarantees of popular political rights against central power and the realities of emerging empire.

“Oh what a wicked web we weave when first we practice to deceive” (author unknown although Sister Mary Richards at St. Gerard di Magella Elementary School in Hollis, New York claimed during the 1960’s that it was Satan).

How much more complicated when that art becomes perfected.

© Guillermo Calvo Mahé; Manizales, 2017; all rights reserved.  Please feel free to share with appropriate attribution.

Guillermo Calvo Mahé (a sometime poet) is a writer, political commentator and academic currently residing in the Republic of Colombia although he has primarily lived in the United States of America (of which he is a citizen).  Until recently he chaired the political science, government and international relations programs at the Universidad Autónoma de Manizales.  He has academic degrees in political science (the Citadel), law (St. John’s University), international legal studies (New York University) and translation studies (the University of Florida’s Center for Latin American Studies).  He can be contacted at or and much of his writing is available through his blog at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s