Friday, October 24, 2014

These Are The Times That Try Catalan Souls

Some politicians, commentators and pundits have tried to make it complicated, but it isn’t.  In a democracy people can vote.  They can’t be limited as to what they can vote on.  The government of a democracy can’t do as China does, to say what you can vote on or what list you must choose from. 

The Catalans are determined to vote.  The more Spain tries to block them, the more determined they are. I think at this point in time, Catalunya is lucky to have the president it has.  President Mas isn’t interested in putting on a show or engaging in civil disobedience that the media would probably enjoy.  He promised he would provide voting boxes and ballots, and he has found a way to do that.

Spain wouldn’t allow a referendum.  A referendum is a vote that is binding, so that if, for instance the public voted yes, they wanted to separate from Spain, that would put in motion the negotiations between the Catalan and the Spanish governments to work out the terms of the separation.  That is what would have happened with Scotland and Great Britain if the Scots had voted yes.  But they didn’t.  So never mind. 

Being denied a referendum, at the end of September, the Catalan Parliament passed a law call La Llei de Consultes no referendaries (Law of Consultations).  This gave the Catalan government the power to call for a “consulta no vinculada i no referendaria” a non-binding consultation – not a referendum -- when it thought necessary to poll the public on matters that concern them. They had resorted to this language and this law because of the ban on a referendum by the Spanish government.

Having the Law of Consultations in place, on Saturday 27 September, President Mas signed a decree calling for a non-binding consultation to be held on 9 November 2014 and specifying the question that would be voted on, as had been agreed upon by the Catalan parliament.

The following day, 29 September (a Sunday – normally a day to rest and enjoy a paella) the Spanish council of ministers met to impugn the Catalan law of consultations.  Their impugnation was delivered to the Spanish Constitutional Court on Monday.  In an unprecedented move, the Court convened that same day (at lightning speed -- it would normally take months) and agreed to take it under consideration.  That automatically meant the law and the decree were suspended.

Then, on 13 October, President Mas announced that there would indeed be a consultation on 9 November.  This would not be the same consultation called for by the decree.  He called it a participatory process and said it was based on another legal framework, one that he did not specify but said already existed.

This put the Catalan political parties into a tizzy.  Four of them (with a majority in the Catalan parliament) had agreed on the question and the date.  They had passed the law of consultations, and they had agreed on the decree.  Now all of a sudden, President Mas came out with a new game to play.

The reason he did this was that if they went ahead with the consultation as originally planned, it would mean disobeying the suspension imposed by the Constitutional Court.  It would not only be the politicians who would be disobeying, it would be all the public employees who organized the vote – those who prepared the eligible voters lists, those who set up the physical spaces, those who counted the votes, etc .  Any government employee who worked in any way on the consultation could be charged with illegal activity by the Spanish state.

At first the parties were in an uproar because what they had all agreed upon had been changed.  One of them even broke down during a radio interview.  He said it was stress and fatigue, but I personally think that he, more than any of the others, wishes for the independence of Catalunya and wants it to happen sooner rather than later. 

But after just a few days, they have reassembled, if not as strongly together as before, nevertheless they have all come out in support of the current set up for the new participatory process.  All but the Greens.  Maybe today or tomorrow they will issue a statement otherwise, but so far the leaders have said that they will not go to vote on 9 November.  Instead they will hold demonstrations of protest and they encourage the public to attend.

This is one of the most disappointing items that has come out of all this drama.  The only thing that counts is people voting.  There have already been several demonstrations – one of over a million, a second of over 1.5 million, and the most recent of 1.8 million.  Now what the Catalan political leaders need to see, what the Spanish government needs to see, and what the world needs to see is how many people will go to vote (or participate) and what percentage will vote for independence.  Having another demonstration will only detract from the issue at hand which is voting.

One of the most interesting and encouraging things in all of this process is that those four Catalan political parties have been able, up to now, to put their political differences aside to work for a common goal – the right to vote, and they are doing so because of the expressed desires of the Catalan public – left and right.  Those parties span the political spectrum and include CiU the Catalan right/business-oriented wing (the party of President Mas); ICV the Greens; ERC, the Catalan left (that has always been pro-independence), and the CUP, a small, radical left-wing independentist  party.

The Catalan left and right wing works together

Working together, a wide spectrum of Catalan
political parties agreed on the Law of Consultations

People really want to have this vote.  President Mas called for volunteers to do the work so as not to put public employees in legal jeopardy.  He asked for 20,000 volunteers.  Within four days over 30,000 signed up.

President Mas maintains that the consultation as originally decreed was non-binding and this consultation/participatory process is the essentially the same.  Instead of lists of eligible voters at the polls, which is the usual procedure in Spain, each person will have to show their I.D. (Spain has national picture I.D. cards).  The tables will be manned by volunteers and the data from the I.D. card will be cross-checked with census data.

How the votes will be collected and counted and who will be there to ensure that there is no corruption in the process has not been disclosed.  President Mas is playing this new game with his cards held very close to his chest.  He is determined that there is no loophole through which the Spanish government can find something to denounce.  Spanish President Rajoy today did indeed announce that his government is looking to see if this new participatory process, which he said is just a cover-up for a referendum and is anti-democratic, can be considered illegal and sent to the Constitutional Court.  But President Mas says that since there is no published law and no official decree, (and since the court is a constitutional and not a criminal court), there is nothing concrete that the Constitutional Court can base a judgment on.

The daily unfolding of this political spectacle has kept me engaged.  I’ve been off my regular TV diet, favoring afternoon AND evening news and anything that gets announced in between on the internet.  There is a peaceful revolution going on in Catalunya where the people are determined to exercise their democratic right.

Friday, October 3, 2014

No Vote in Spain

This has been a very animated week here in Catalunya.  As the day nears for the vote on a referendum to decide whether or not Catalans want to remain part of Spain, the pace of the moves on both sides quickens and intensifies.  You might think that “both sides” refers to both sides of the question to be voted.  And you would be wrong.  “Both sides” refers to the Catalan government that is committed to its citizens to hold the vote on one side, and the Spanish government that is committed to blocking it on the other.  Because Spain is supposedly a modern (western!) country and part of the European Union, one might wonder why voting would be an issue.  In order to be admitted to the EU a country has to demonstrate that it is a democracy, and Spain managed to be accepted.  Now that it is a member, the EU doesn’t really want to be bothered about whether or not it is democratic and whether or not it prohibits its citizens from voting and telling their elected representatives unequivocally what they want.

The last few days went like this.  On 19 September, a week after 1.8 million people demonstrated in Barcelona saying they wanted to vote, the Catalan parliament approved a law that allowed for the people to be “consulted” and called for the consultation to be held on 9 November.  It was passed by the overwhelming majority of 106 to 28.  A consultation differs from a referendum in that it does not become a law (as would a proposition voted on an American state ballot).  It tells the government (the Catalan government) what the voters want in reference to a subject of importance to them.  It is then up to the government to negotiate if necessary and to implement their wish.

In its concept, it is more democratic than the usual procedure of voting for a person (here you vote for a party) and hoping that the person or party will do what was promised in a campaign.  When you vote in a consultation, you are being consulted by your government; you are telling all your representatives exactly what you do or do not want them to do on a specific issue. 

Oriol Junkeras (ERC), representing the Catalan left
and Artur Mas (CiU) representing the Catalan right:
Two unlikely allies who have set their ideological
differences aside to work for a common goal

On Saturday 29 September Artur Mas, President of the Generalitat of Catalunya, signed the Law of Consultations.

On Sunday 30 September Spanish President Rajoy met with his cabinet, not to discuss how they might discuss this crisis with the Catalan government, but to take steps to block the Consultation.

The complaint, saying that the Law of Consultations was unconstitutional, was filed with the Spanish Constitutional Court on Monday morning.  Not scheduled to meet, the members of the Court flew to their chambers, held a special emergency meeting, and on Monday afternoon the Court agreed to consider it and that immediately suspended the new Catalan Law of Consultations.

Given the great speed by which these high-level bodies met and acted whereas this type of thing usually takes weeks or months to be looked at by the Court, President Mas made the comment that it was all done at supersonic speed.  One might also wonder how it was that the Court, that had never been called to a meeting so quickly, agreed to meet that same day.  It looks to some as if the Constitutional Court simply takes its orders from the Spanish government.  This could be substantiated by the fact that the Court’s President, Francisco Perez de los Cabos, was a member of the governing party (PP) while he was a judge (he later quit his party membership) while he was a judge, even though the Spanish Constitution forbids it.  He was not dismissed.  Why would the PP want to dismiss one of their own?

On Tuesday, the Catalan government temporarily suspended preparations for the Consultation, the issue to be discussed by the political parties in favor of holding the Consultation later in the week. 

On Wednesday, the Catalan government filed an appeal to the Constitutional Court requesting that the suspension be lifted.

It is not surprising that, although it is already Friday, there has been no response from the Court.   In fact, it isn’t clear when they will meet to consider this appeal.  Some things do not happen at supersonic speed.

After writing and posting this, I read a special announcement.  The Catalan political parties that support the right to vote finished their 7-hour meeting.  They include CIU, the Catalan right wing, ERC, the Catalan left wing, the Greens, and CUP the radicals (for lack of a better definition -- they continue to baffle me).  They pretty much cover the Catalan political spectrum (minus the socialists who don't seem to think that voting is a fundamental right in a democracy) and have all agreed that they will go ahead with the Consultation.  They say that voting is a basic democratic right and neither the central government in Madrid nor the Constitutional Court has the right to prohibit it.  

Further reading:
From the Harvard Political Review: 
OpEd from the LA Times: