How could/should Catalonia’s referendum look like?

Read few comments.

President of the Generalitat of Catalonia Carles Puigdemont. Credit: http://www.catalangovernment.eu

Questions:

1. What do you think will Madrid do regarding upcoming Catalonia’s referendum, will Madrid try to stop it by any means or it will probably let it pass and says it is unconstitutional anyway?

2. If Catalonia wants to have an independence referendum I understand it will be about the simple majority. But what about to discuss the rules like e. g. minimum 50% turnout with at least 55% threshold for independence approval (like Montenegro independence referendum in 2006) to make it more representative?

Answers:

Luis MorenoResearch Professor, Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), Institute of Public Goods and Policies

1. It’s difficult to foresee the way the Spanish Government (and eventually the Spanish Parliament) will react with concrete measures. My feeling is that the the Spanish authorities will ask the judiciary to proceed against any illegal activities taken by the Catalan Generalitat. The ‘bottom line’ would be to suspend the activities of the Catalan self-government, according to art. 155 (1) of the Spanish Constitution: “1. If an Autonomous Community does not fulfil the obligations imposed upon it by the Constitution or other laws, or acts in a way seriously prejudicing the general interests of Spain, the Government, after lodging a complaint with the President of the Autonomous Community and failing to receive satisfaction therefore, may, following approval granted by an absolute majority of the Senate, take the measures necessary in order to compel the latter forcibly to meet said obligations, or in order to protect the above-mentioned general interests.” If such a scenario takes places, there would most likely be a large majority in favour of suspending Catalonia’s institutions of self-government at the Upper House (Senate) of the Spanish Parliament.

2. There is no agreement whatsoever as to proceed with a popular referendum in Catalonia about secession.On 18 September 2014, Catalonia’s institutions of self-government promoted the celebration of a referendum. Even though it was declared illegal by the Spanish Constitutional Court, the Catalan Government of the Generalitat went ahead with the organization of a public consultation, which finally took place ‘informally’ on 9 November 2014. A majority of 80 per cent of those who participated in the consultation voted for secession (‘Yes’ to both submitted questions to the electorate on self-determination.The sequence of the questions was as follows: “(a) Do you want Catalonia to become a State? (Yes/No); If the answer is in the affirmative: (b) Do you want this State to be independent? (Yes/No). You can only answer the question under Letter (b) in the event of having answered “Yes” to the question under Letter (a)”. ). Turnout was around 37 per cent of the registered voters. Now the Catalan Generalitat has fixed October 1st, 2017 as the date for the referendum and the question to be as follows: “Do you want Catalonia to be an independent state in the form of a republic?” According to the Spanish Constitution the announced referendum is ‘unconstitutional’ and it is not to take place.

Joan BotellaProfessor of Political Science, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona

1. Something in between: Madrid cannot (and will not) ignore this “vote”, as it did in 2014. Both sides are playing a “chicken game”: you should see the old movie by James Dean called “Rebel without a cause”: the two players are facing each other, knowing that they must stop, but pressing the other one so he’ll be the first to stop. The radical elements in the separatist movement are really longing for a police intervention from Madrid, which they will not get; but certainly there will be negative consequences, including remotions, and possibly arrests.

2. This type of rules emerge when there is an agreement about the holding of the referendum. Such an agreement does not exist in the Catalan case, and the regional Government has formally stated that the rate of turnout is not a relevant issue; no matter how many people show up for voting, a majority of Yes over No (even if it is only a difference of one ballot) will be sufficient to declare independence; other wise, a new election will be called on immediately.

Lluis Orriols, Associate  Professor, University Carlos III of Madrid 

1. This time the central government has a stronger commitment not to repeat what happened in 2014 and to prevent the celebration of any type of illegal referendum. Therefore, it is very likely that the government will take action in order to stop the election. In fact, the central government has powerful legal resources to do it. However,  it still remains uncertain whether the PP government is willing to use the last resort: the execution of the 155 article of the Constitution which allows the government to suspend part of the Catalan autonomy. The PP has the absolute majority in the Senate, and therefore they are in conditions to do it.

2. If the illegal referendum finally takes place, it is expected a exceptional good results in favour for independence. Since the referendum is considered illegal, many unionist voters will decide to boycott the election. Therefore, turnout would be biased in favor of independence. Thus the qualified majority of 55 percent does not particularly bother the Catalan government. In fact, the real challenge for the Catalan government is to obtain at least the majority of the ELIGIBLE electorate (and not the majority among the participants). In other words, the secessionist parties have to demonstrate that the number of pro-independence votes obtained in the illegal referendum is sufficiently high so that they would also win a legal referendum in which all Catalans, including the unionist voters, decided to vote. If they obtain the majority of the eligible electorate, they would be in conditions to claim that the referendum, despite being illegal, has proved that the majority of Catalans are in favour of secession.

Alejandro QuirogaReader in Spanish History, School of Historical Studies, Newcastle University

1. No one really knows. The conservative government in Madrid has say nothing, so your guess is as good as mine. I reckon the second would be the wiser option but it is hard to say at this stage.

2. The Catalan government knows that it is unlikely that they get the support of more than 50% of the population in a proper referendum, so it has never set any sort of threshold. The last regional elections were presented as a plebiscite, a sort of substitute of the referendum. Then the electoral support for the pro-independence parties  only reach 49% of the vote, but still they got an absolute majority in the Catalan parliament, so the discourse changed towards the importance of the Catalan Parliament as a real representation of the Catalan people.  A very shifty terrain.

Ramon Pacheco PardoSenior Lecturer, King’s College London

1. Little by little, we see how the central government and the regional government in Catalonia are trying to build bridges. Most notably, it seems that Catalonia’s president will eventually explain his government’s plans in the Spanish parliament. Thus, I think that the Spanish government will go through the motions of trying to stop the referendum but will let it take place if it comes down to it. The previous ‘referendum’ was a failure, with only pro-independence voters bothering to vote. It would be the same with a second illegal referendum. So politically it is best to eventually let it take place and fail again.

2. The rules of the referendum have not been discussed because the Catalan regional government knows that this is a political game unless the Spanish government agrees to it. If this were to happen, I would expect the Spanish central government to demand a 55/60 per cent threshold of votes in favour and perhaps a threshold in terms of participation. This is becoming more common in referendums everywhere, and the Brexit referendum in the UK shows that simple majorities do not provide conclusive decisions.

Francisco Romero SalvadoReader in Modern Spanish History, University of Bristol

1. The situation is quite baffling to say the least. The Spanish constitution (as the constitutions of most western states) stress es the unity of the nation and doesn’t recognize the principle of self-determination. Let me stress that this is not Spanish authoritarian manners but something shared by nearly all states (I refer to recent cases in some states in the USA or the responses of the constitutional courts to some regions in Germany or Italy). What is baffling is that the Spanish state has done literally nothing for the last 5 years letting the Catalan nationalists dictate the agenda. Why the passivity? A combination of Francoist complex (if we do anything, we are going to be blamed of being Francoists) – this complex is unique in Spain where entire sections of the left seem to have forgotten basic socialism/marxism and accept nationalism as something progressive, ignoring its xenophobic constraints. And secondly, the wrong assumption that the nationalist wave would simply diminish with time.

Having said all that and in regards to your first question, everybody knows that the referendum will not take place because is illegal, unconstitutional and internationally not recognized or backed by anyone. Recently, the Venice commission said so in clear terms. The idea is that there are radicalized sectors within the Catalan nationalist movement (including the current president of the Catalan government) who may well have concluded that the only thing that at this stage could help `the independence process’ is to force events: violent scenes in the streets (mention has been made to recent years’ protests in Turkey with occupation of streets). This is one of the `qualities’ of independentism: one day they compare themselves with the black struggle for rights in 1960s USA, another with Israel, another with Palestine, another with Kosovo, you name it. This means that the Spanish government may face the alternative of allowing another illegal act to go ahead  but then its authority being undermined or try to take forceful measures that could escalate to violence.

2. I don’t think we need to answer question 2. Last time they organize one (9 November 2014), it was a joke:  it went on for weeks, anyone above 16 years could vote as well as foreigners then in Catalonia. The votes were counted blatantly by leaders of the movement and they had to acknowledge that only 1/3 of the population (according to them!) had voted. Of course, 80% of those voted yes to independence.

 

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