For many supporters of Catalan independence, the illegal referendum on October 1 is an act of democracy because it consists in putting a ballot into a ballot box.
One of the most frequent errors of the Catalan independence movement is equating voting with democracy. The October 1 referendum is democratic because it consists in putting a ballot into a ballot box. Despite offering no safeguards, being illegal and deriving its legitimacy from an anti-democratic coup, a ballot going into a ballot box is democratic. An example, with no frivolity intended: it’s like a basketball player scoring a hoop after time has run out and the match has ended. Why is it not valid? Isn’t the game about putting the ball through the hoop? Democracy without rules and safeguards is not democracy, as they know in Hungary and Poland, in Ukraine and Russia, in Donbass and Crimea.
And referendums are not always designed to extend rights — often, they’re meant to do the exact opposite. Idealizing the act of putting a ballot into a box as something intrinsically good is dangerous. Last year, Hungary set up some innocent boxes, into which some innocent ballots were introduced, to decide whether or not to accept refugees. The ‘no’ campaign, sponsored by the Orbán government, used slogans such as, ‘Did you know that the Paris attacks were committed by immigrants?’ or ‘Do you know that, since the beginning of the migration crisis, there has been a strong increase in sexual assault against women?’
A few years ago, during the 15-M movement, part of the left said that democracy wasn’t just about voting every 4 years — now, the same left are demanding only to vote, even if it’s not binding or legal, and mocking those who are “afraid” of ballot boxes, democracy and the people. They advocate an expressive vote, a way to take a stance. A performative vote in which what matters is the act itself, not its consequences. One votes, usually, to change something or leave it as it is. This left, in contrast, vote to accumulate more arguments and reaffirm their position.
The Deputy Mayor of Barcelona, Gerardo Pisarello, calls for a ‘critical yes’ in the October 1 illegal referendum, as if a vote could carry any nuances, as if one could attach psychological features to it: like blowing the candles and asking for a wish. Pisarello thinks his ‘critical yes’ is ‘a form of rebellion against centralism and authoritarianism’ but also ‘a way forward towards the substantive proposal of the Comunes (i.e. his party and supporters): a plurinational, respectful agreement of equals among the different peoples of Spain’. Sadly, after the vote count (if there is one) none of that will matter: such a vote will be counted only as a ‘yes’. His party, Catalunya en Comú, plan to take part in the events of October 1 as a demonstration, confirming it’s only a performance.
It’s difficult to advocate plurality, understanding and respect through an illegal referendum that leaves no room for intermediate positions representing the majority of Catalans that reject both independence and the statu quo. But what truly matters to Pisarello is saying what he’s voting, rather than the consequences of his vote. A narcissistic vote, similar to that of Brexit or of those American voters who didn’t want to choose between Trump and Hillary: consequences don’t matter – or, in the case of October 1, it doesn’t matter whether a vote is valid or binding. It’s about the act of voting itself, the individual form of expression.
Many people think that the referendum in Catalonia should be accepted, at least to know what Catalan society thinks, as if it were a poll. That’s not what democracy is. If the vote is binding then it’s not just a poll but has consequences: in this case, the secession of a territory. The October 1 referendum works neither as a referendum nor as a poll. It’s a narcissistic performance for those who think that democracy is just about voting – and for those who want to prove that their voice is worth more than others’.