Artur Mas, the president of the Generalitat of Catalonia, signed a decree calling for a referendum over the independence of Catalonia.

The referendum was to be held on November 9 and the question would have been: a) Do you want Catalonia to become a state? If the answer would be affirmative: b) Do you want this state to be independent?

The central government heavily opposed the decision and went straight before the Constitutional Court. Two days later, the judges decided unanimously to temporarily suspend the referendum. They declared that Catalonia could not unilaterally take a decision that could affect all the Spaniards. The campaign to promote the referendum was interrupted in order to avoid public funds being used for a purpose that was declared illegal but this does not seem to deter the most motivated people.

When did the crisis begin? Not surprisingly, during the economic crisis of 2008 and the suspicion that the central government is meddling with Catalan politics and not investing enough compared with the taxes being paid strengthened the nationalist feeling.

Catalonia is currently defined as an autonomous region by the Statute of Sau of 1979. The statute is an organic law, which come right after the Constitution in term of authority. As such, Catalonia has the power to legislate over various matters such as civil law and education.

On January 23, 2013 the parliament of Catalonia voted “Declaration of Sovereignty and of the Right to Decide of the Catalan People”. The resolution was adopted by a wide majority (85 yes against 41 no) and started the process toward the referendum. On May 8 the declaration was suspended by the Constitutional Court. Nonetheless, an agreement was made between the Catalan government and the political parties on the December 12 to hold the referendum.

Artur Mas promised to defend the referendum before the Constitutional Court against the government. However it could be months before the final decision is taken. The situation is complex. On one hand one cannot prevent the people to express themselves over such an important matter. But on the other hand it is very difficult to know if the Catalan people actually want the referendum. Between 2009 and 2011 unofficial consultations were organised in a lot of Catalan towns and if the votes were largely in favour of independence the participation rate was very low.

A referendum is useful but dangerous. It allows direct democracy and as such is the most powerful tool available to politician who want to implement important reforms. However it is also unpredictable and its consequences very hard to foresee. If it is not organised in a official and controlled environment, as it is threatening to happen in Catalonia, no one can ever be certain of the legitimacy of the result.

Bertrand Thery, Correspondent (Politics)

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