Referendums and the Idea of a Nation

Published: October 27, 2017 - 20:49 Updated: October 27, 2017 - 20:54

Unions are unequal in nature, Catalonia’s Independence leads to questions about how regions give more than they get

Catalonia announced its independence 27 days after its referendum. When On October 16, the second deadline given by the Spanish government in Madrid to the Catalan government headed by Carles Puigdemont to make its intentions clear on the purpose of the referendum, expired. The Catalonian government was given eight days to drop the demand for autonomy after a referendum held a fortnight ago, on October 1. This was the fourth time in 11 years that the Catalan people had voted for independence – the previous three were more symbolic referendums, but always giving the same result. With over 90 percent votes cast in favour of breaking away from Spain, the Spanish government in Madrid did not take the call for a vote lightly. Police officers raided the polling booths in attempts to stop the vote. It was a messy intervention by the police that left 900 injured. The violence was beamed all over the world, forcing the Spanish authorities to apologise for it.

The Spanish authorities do not want to back off from their assertion that the Catalonian referendum is secessionary and hence cannot be entertained. It has the backing of the Supreme Court that has called the referendum illegal. The political deadlock lies in the simple assumption that the territorial boundaries of Spain are an unalterable fact. Another fear is that Catalonian independence could act as a catalyst for other regions to assert their demand for autonomy, most notably in the Basque country.

The Catalonian referendum comes at a time when these polls in different parts of the world are quietly but firmly challenging the established idea of a nation-state.

The reason behind the desire for autonomy lies in the Catalan region’s own history, culture and linguistic tradition – an identity distinct to the larger one ascribed as Spanish – beaten down by Madrid and by the violent fascist regime of Francisco Franco. After the unification of Spain in 1462, facilitated by the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castille, it led to other regions becoming second fiddle to the larger Castillian identity that came to dominate the region. Franco’s regime followed the same hegemonic pattern of rule that became more fierce especially in regard to the Catalans.

The sidelining of Catalonia, according to pro-independence voices, lies in the unequal economic relationship between a region and the whole nation, which in recent times has got worse because of the austerity drive that has been imposed upon the country. Catalonia, after Madrid, is the largest contributor to Spain’s economy and the second wealthiest. The truth is only slightly different, the region gets additional help and an added fiscal package from the government of Spain, which also provides additional funds for infrastructure. Catalonia is home to 7.6 million people and to Barcelona, one of the biggest, most prosperous cities in the country. These factors also compound Spain’s unwillingness to allow Catalonian independence.

In the last month, two populations – the Kurds in Iraq and the Catalan region in Spain – have voted for autonomy. They have decided, almost unanimously, to free themselves of the established boundaries of the nation-states they have lived under. The story of each population, their history, and context is different, but what is peculiar is that they in their own ways are questioning the defined borders of nations as a union, as an established truth. The Kurds question the cartographer and the peculiar role colonialism played in denying Kurds a state. The Catalonians reject the homogeneity and hegemonic idea of a nation and what it does to regional differences. Madrid understands that freedom for the rich province could result in its pauperisation. Though the central government could draw comfort from the fact that most of the Catalonians who have been agitating in Barcelona’s square do not really want to leave Spain. The most authoritative survey showed that 49 percent of the Catalonians want to stay back with Spain. There is space for accommodating the Catalonians’ ambitions if their autonomy that they enjoyed till 2010 is restored to them. Will the government show flexibility or will it come down on this demand with a heavy hand? 

This story is from print issue of HardNews