Democracy in action as Australia’s Catalans vote for independence

The sense of a distinct identity is what drives Catalans to continue pushing for independence despite the obstacles. Aleksandra Hadzelek

On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, another milestone in European history took place: the Catalan vote on independence. Downgraded from an official referendum – which would be illegal, according to the Spanish Constitution – the results from Sunday’s vote will not be in any way legally binding.

However, that more than two million people voted, of whom more than 80% voted in favour of independence, demonstrates the will of the Catalan people to re-affirm their distinct identity and seek the right to self-determination through peaceful means.

The first 297 votes were cast in Sydney, the first polling station to open in the world. It might not seem like much, but during Spanish general elections the consulate in Sydney has never processed more than 200 votes.

Emotions ran high as voters in Sydney invoked memories of their parents and grandparents who had fought in the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War and lived through the oppressive Franco regime when even speaking Catalan in public was forbidden.

Despite a transition to democracy in the late 1970s, the Spanish Constitution conceived and agreed upon at the time imposed strict restrictions on how far the autonomy of regions can be taken, and specifically prohibited the change of the state system to a federation.

The conservative government in Madrid has insisted on a strict adherence to the law. The constitutional framework allows only the King to call a referendum. Spain’s Ambassador to Australia, Enrique Viguera Rubio, explained that according to the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling, even the non-official and non-binding survey of the population run entirely by volunteers is as illegal as the official referendum.

Justice Minister Rafael Catalá threatened legal action against people involved in the vote. However, he didn’t specify if the investigation is targeting specific organisers or all of the 40,000 volunteers who ran the voting process.

None of this stopped the Catalans from going ahead with this “consultation”, nor from abandoning the attempt of negotiating a political solution in a peaceful way. “This is my way of fighting for the fundamental right to decide my people’s future,” said a Catalan residing in Melbourne whose parents fought in the Spanish Civil War. “I only wish my mother lived to see it.” She died five years ago, when it was still unthinkable that Catalans could actually vote on their future.

The group that gathered in front of Sydney’s Opera House was very much an imagined community in political scientist Benedict Anderson’s sense. They didn’t know each other personally but participated in this communal activity because of the common identity they share. The sense of a distinct identity is what drives them to continue pushing for independence despite the obstacles.

More than 80% of votes cast in an unofficial referendum favoured independence for Catalonia. EPA/Toni Albir

Meritxell, who flew to Sydney from the Sunshine Coast, wants her Catalan identity to represent her when she travels. She wants to be a Catalan citizen, not a citizen of another country that doesn’t represent her and doesn’t define her. She fully understands that the vote will primarily have only a symbolic meaning, but even then she didn’t mind the money and the effort that it took for her to be able to take part in this symbolic act.

People came here without knowing each other. This is what makes a nation.

According to the constitution, Catalans do not have the right to consider themselves a nation, only a nationality within one Spanish nation. The constitution also assures the indissolubility of the Spanish state and rules out a federation.

In eastern Europe, a decentralisation process that took place prior to states joining the European Union (EU) allowed for the formation of smaller national states that are better suited to the EU. In large colonial powers in western Europe, it was impossible for these nations to have their own voice until the end of decolonisation and the beginning of European integration.

Josep Royo, one of the volunteers in Sydney, sees the current Catalan struggle for independence as the first step towards building a future Europe – united but not uniform or homogenous, coherent in its structure, and respectful of all the identities that form it.

Another volunteer, Eva Bartoll, agreed that Sunday’s vote is an indication of what will happen across Europe. It is also an example of a bottom-up democratic process, where people have pressured the politicians and dictated the political process.

Spain has seen this process articulated several times in recent years. Social movements and street demonstrations have demonstrated the frustration of the people with institutions of the state, particularly regarding alleged corruption in the monarchy and government.

According to one article, we have seen not only a total confrontation between the Spanish state and Catalan institutions, but also an opinion poll on voting intentions for the next general elections in 2015 that spells the end of the bipartisan system in Spain.