• Pierre Smith Khanna

What is wrong with our Democracy?

The events in Catalunya cannot help but trigger one’s interest in democracy. That old word we so easily take for granted. Power to the people. The best system. The least worse. The only right way for a political entity to function. We’ve heard it all before. Yet something about the case of Catalunya is different, although it is difficult to say just what that is.

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that a vote occurred, and has been deemed illegal. Somehow, in our conception of democracy, voting cannot be illegal so long as it is conducted openly and fairly. Of course, it can be, as we have seen both in the case of Catalunya and elsewhere throughout history (as in the case of Bosnia and Croatia before the outbreak of the Yugoslav war, and the Kurdish referendum this September). Beneath the matter of legality however, lies a question of representation. For that is also what democracy is about: delegating the masses’ decision-making power to a few, by voting for those who will represent the masses. If those who receive these votes do not represent those who bestow upon them their confidence then the democratic system is effectively not doing what it is billed to do.

Why is that?

Take a look at what is happening in Catalunya. What is a stake is a conflict of interests between the Spanish government and the Catalan government. The Spanish want Catalunya to remain within Spain, and the Catalan government want to secede and proclaim their own state.

The people of Catalunya, we must be aware, voted for a government who’s manifesto was built around the will to secede. Is it the case that the Catalan people simply do not have the right to independence full stop?What, in an ideal world, ought to happen in this situation? Given that Spain’s constitution enshrines the indivisibility of the Spanish state, ought Spain organise a referendum of its own, asking all the people of Spain whether Catalunya should be able to have a referendum on the question of their independence? Ought Spain organise a referendum on the question of Catalan independence itself? Who, basically, ought to decide on the fate of Catalunya?

The case of the Scottish referendum in 2014 is a good case to compare Catalunya with. Unlike Spain, Britain is free of a formal, written constitution, and thus has more flexibility in how it could address the Scottish demands for a referendum on self-determination. Whereas it could very well have prevented it from happening via legal and constitutional means, the case of the Scottish referendum is admirable in that London, having recognised Scotland as a nation (unlike Spain with Catalunya) respects what is termed the 'doctrine of the mandate', “a doctrine whereby obtaining a majority in an election gives a party a political and moral mandate to implement any policy that is part of its election programme”.

In other words, Britain respects the fact that democracy is representative, so if people vote for something, that thing ought not be ignored no matter how threatening or distatesful it may seem to you personally. If you believe independence-minded Catalans are nothing more than stingy nationalists - according to the British, that’s not a good enough reason to treat them any differently.

At the moment, Spain is hiding behind its constitution and, having lost its queen and knights, is using it as a castle to produce a stalemate. It is true that, when Spain voted on the constitution back in 1978, 91.09% of Catalan voters agreed to it. This poignant fact has been used by some to declare that "it seems obvious that repealing the current constitutional framework would require at least a similar majority today." (El Pais).

Yet the Catalans who were eligible to vote for the Constitution back in 1978 today represent less than 30% of the population (probably significantly less given the number of adults who have moved to and out of Catalunya since 1978). To what extent ought the majority of Catalans today be held to what their forefathers signed 39 years ago without their consent?

“We are born, and at that moment, it is as if we had signed a pact for the rest of our life, but a day may come when we will ask ourselves Who signed this on my behalf.”

J. Saramago, Seeing

King of the Castle

Spain is acting like most powerful entities would: keeping hold of what power they can. This is not a matter of democracy, of finding out what their electorate want, but of power (the case of Britain represents a curious case we would do well to study). As an astute political observer once said: “nothing but defeat in war has induced States to part with territory: although this attitude is taken for granted, it is not one which would be adopted if the State has better ends in view [...] If the well-being of the citizens were the end in view, the question whether a certain area should be included, or should form a separate state, would be left freely to the decision of that area.”

Bertrand Russell’s words have certainly fallen on deaf ears in Madrid. Instead, Mr Rajoy and King Felipe may have taken inspiration from Jose Saramago’s novel Seeing, which describes the government's reaction to an 83% casting of blank votes in the capital city. As the President addressed the nation, revealing the results of the election:

“I speak to you as one torn asunder by the pain of an incomprehensible rift, like a father abandoned by his beloved children, all of us equally confused and perplexed by the extraordinary chain of events that has destroyed our sublime family harmony. And do not say that it was us, that it was me, that it was the government of the nation, along with its elected deputies, who were the ones to break away from the people […] You are to blame, yes, you are the ones who have ignominiously rejected national concord in favour of the tortuous road of subversion and indiscipline and in favour of the most perverse and diabolical challenge to the legitimate power of the state.”

Admittedly, the President was addressing himself to the 83% who cast blank votes, a situation which is different to addressing oneself to the 2,000,000 Catalans who cast a “Yes” vote. Yet the underlying mechanisms remain the same: governments must represent their electorate, but also represent themselves. How else to explain Madrid’s decision? Only because it thinks it knows what’s best for Spain and hence Catalunya. Is that democracy?

Where is Democracy going?

Democracy, we must understand, is simply a method by which to make decisions. It is good to remind oneself that there are many faces of democracy, and questioning the current way we go about it and why we do so is just as important as questioning anything else. As Socrates taunted: who would you rather call the shots during your circumnavigation of the world - a captain with decades of experience, or the results of the votes of all the crew and all the passengers aboard the ship?

If Socrates’ thoughts on democracy remain pertinent today it is because we have no yet resolved the many questions surrounding democracy. Questions of how human beings ought to organise themselves. Of what they organise themselves for. Yet if there’s one fact about democracy we can be sure of it’s this: power belongs to the people, who lend it to the state. Not the other way around.

Madrid aside, Catalunya is starkly divided over the question of independence. 50/50. In smaller groups people can hear each other out and through dialogue - perhaps lengthy and tiresome dialogue - can reach an agreement by 80% or more. The question facing Catalunya is how to foster dialogue so that the whole population can partake and reach consensus on such a heated issue?



© 2020 by Pierre Smith Khanna