For years, Catalonia has been swamped in the so-called procés [process -TN]; a disconcerting political bet that draws the region closer to a risk of fracture, political gridlock and inaction in other less «epic» areas more relevant to the actual welfare of its citizens. In such uncomfortable context, the resurgence of a willingness to unravel the thread in a fast and participative manner through a binding independence referendum is understandable.
It is not surprising that the secessionists demand it because, despite their claims that they have «turned a page» and are already legitimated for «disconnection», forcing a Scottish-like referendum is still their great strategic goal. It would mean achieving half of their maximal program (being recognized as a separate political community) and, even if «no» triumphed, the precedent would allow for a rematch at a more auspicious time to achieve the second half (an internationally-accepted legal secession). It is more intriguing, though, that this solution is also defended by a significant portion of the non-nationalist left, in Catalonia and elsewhere in Spain, invoking both democratic (we want to vote) and pragmatic (voting is worth it) arguments. We disagree with both.
First of all, the supposed clamor for the «right to decide» can be doubted. It’s usually repeated that 80% of Catalonians would like to be consulted about their future. In reality, this demoscopic evidence is derived from the simplification bias that results from asking something like «Do you prefer being taken into account or ignored»? Nonetheless, when polls are more sophisticated and the possible answers include other options like negotiation between governments, positions become more nuanced. This happened, for example, in the GESOP «barometer» (February 2014) where only 49% opted for the referendum as a solution; This is a larger figure (not by much) than those choosing independence.
But regardless of the true social backing for the referendum, it’s worth looking at the two practical reasons argued by those who embrace this solution without being pro-independence themselves: 1) it would, at long last, make the will of the Catalonian people clearly known and 2) the mere fact of holding it would reduce secessionist anxiety, thus contributing to its defeat.
This reasoning disregards the clash of legitimacies between the will of the Catalonian citizenry (actually only of a significant part of it) and the established constitutional framework, in addition to the contradiction with the will of the Spanish people, which is in principle the demos on which our democracy is founded and that, overwhelmingly in this case, has no interest in seeing their country questioned, nor having to eventually deal with the social, political and economic consequences of its dismembering.
But let’s not dwell on this aspect, which proponents of the referendum consider irrelevant. Let’s concede that those negative effects on Spain -that would happen even if secession was rejected- need not to concern Catalonian citizens. Let’s assume that only them constitute the sovereign subject that can «self-determine». Well, not even in those circumstances would the solution for Catalonia lie in a referendum that asks whether or not separation is preferred. Such a formula, with a binary question, would have the apparent advantage of clarity in the result. But it has four big democratic drawbacks.
The first one is not capturing the preference of a large swath of Catalonian citizens, probably the most abundant, that, while rejecting the status quo, do not want secession but a new pact to renew and improve self-government. This was precisely the problem with the Scottish precedent, where the majority aspiration (more devolution) could not be voted on because Mr. Cameron looked to avoid a cumbersome power-sharing negotiation by forcing Scotts to choose in the most dramatic manner between «in» or «out».
The second drawback is that clarity is impossible in situations of a potential draw; and here it is useful to look at the Quebec precedent, where there has been an exhausting decades-long argument on what constitutes a «clear majority». The contortions taking place in Catalonia to consider the meager results of the September 27th election as sufficient, show that the controversy would be even greater here. And no formula, whether with two or more options, would shed an unarguable result. How would we manage a result where 48% votes for independence, 24% for federalism and 28% for the autonomic status quo?
This leads to the third «but»: a result that slimly rejected the secessionist option would hardly deactivate it (it didn’t do it in Quebec nor in Scotland) and would condemn, under nationalist pressure and strategic calculations to get the center to make seducing offers that improve territorial power, to additional elections (the «neverendum»).
But in our opinion the most problematic drawback is the fourth one: Catalonia is crossed by a fracture, both social and political, that can hardly be overcome by democratic deliberation because it reflects primal identifications. When the population is split in two halves with strong cultural identities, the result of a referendum would only capture the contingent state of mind of a small group of undecided whose vote is susceptible of switching. Catalonia is not un sol poble [a single people -TN]. Supporters of the referendum have crafted a mythical image of the Scottish process, which doesn’t suffer from an identity split, but have glossed over many other cases (such as Belgium, Ulster or Cyprus) where only the most sectarian positions consider that voting for a break-up can work as a legitimate and effective mechanism to manage the conflict. When there are territorial problems rooted in identity, a referendum, far from helping solve the social fracture, would actually polarize it more.
We do not defend a birdcage-state that traps a clear and persistent majority of citizens that want to leave it. Because if the break-up was irreversible and non-identity based, an advanced democracy like Spain would have to contemplate accepting secession. But that majority is neither here now nor is it forthcoming. That’s why the solution is not a referendum. In reality there’s no solution beyond sensible formulas of co-habitation that would laboriously build, through large doses of dialogue and generosity, shared-power systems. Of course, any agreements thus reached – a federal reform or a more satisfactory arrangement for the respective minorities- could later be voted on by the citizenry. But that would not be a divisive election.
Pau Marí-Klose is a professor of Sociology at the Universidad de Zaragoza. Ignacio Molina is a professor of Political Science at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid