February 27, 2024

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Stable and healthy democracies are those which protect basic rules vis-à-vis temporary majorities

Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen are two prestigious US political scientists , who coauthored a book, which unfortunately is not sufficiently known in Catalonia. Its title is «Democracy for Realists», and it consists of an empirical exploration, leveraging data from the United States, prior to the elections which gave Donald Trump his victory, which destroys the myth according to which the solution to the problems of the democracy is always more « democracy».

The solution to the problems of democracy is not really more democracy (translated as:  more direct democracy, covering more decisions, under fewer regulations), but an “improved democracy”, with superior institutions and rules. Democratic radicalism is in fact in severe contradiction with the quality of democracy.

Democracy is the best system when it combines the election of representatives respecting equal opportunities as much among voters as among candidates, with stable rules decided via broad agreements. And coupled with the practice of pluralism, deliberation and public reasoning. It is the system that allows transfers of power to be both nonviolent and respected, and which gives legitimacy to the temporary exercise of government.

However democracy by itself does not guarantee rational, nor efficient, nor stable decisions. We nevertheless know by now that every other system is worse, and even much worse.  Therefore, what need to do is improve  democracy.

Bartels and Achen provide broad empirical backing to the above statements; which in turn had already been formulated theoretically decades ago by economists such as  Kenneth Arrow and Amartya Sen; two progressive democrats, who explained that even if each of the individual voters were rational decision-makers, there is no voting rule satisfying a minimum of desirable properties at any one time (i.e. the Arrow´s Theorem of the Impossibility extended by Sen). They also explained that most of the generally adopted voting rules can produce different results across themselves, and sometimes even different results using the same rule depending, among other factors, on who is in control of the political agenda.

Kahneman and Tversky also opened the door to taking into account the cognitive biases of all those who participate in social interaction processes, including politics. If the supposed democracy of rational individuals of Arrow and Sen already highlighted problems in making collective decisions, adding elements of limited rationality, further complicates things and converts a democracy with minimalist rules and without intermediaries into recklessness.

The works of Ziblatt and Levitsky, Yascha Mounk, Finchelstein, and Hans-Werner Müller, among other experts on the risks entailed by populism, have arrived in tear-dropper to Catalonia, but they do nothing else other than explain how national-populist forces exploit to their own benefit the weaknesses of democracy (demonstrated empirically by Bartels and Achen), on behalf of democracy and at the same time, seriously endangering it.

I am not sure if in Catalonia we have extracted all the lessons derived from the failure of the referendum on the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, that being the most recent democratic experience in space and time showcasing the mentioned weaknesses.  No matter how the Brexit story ends up, it is granted that those who voted for leaving the EU will not get what they believe they voted for, apart from causing severe economic and social damage to their own country.

Either catastrophic departure will take place, or there will be some form of what is considered as “Brexit in name only”  (BINO: with even less sovereignty than in the current situation, because the British would no longer be in the decision-making process for norms that will continue to affect them), without ruling out a second referendum returning them to the starting box (even if now with more information), logically proposed by those who do not want to leave the EU, and rejected by supporters of Brexit, just as the 2016 referendum was proposed by those who wanted to leave and refused by those who wanted to stay in the EU; meaning that instruments are not neutral, even if they look like they are.

The Brexit referendum was actually not a path to solving a problem, but instead to making it even more complicated, even if it was a legal referendum, taking advantage of the very limited constitutional constraints – an exceptional characteristic in the international scene – , of the British system.  It was not even a way of revealing the “will of the people” either, which immediately after ended up very confused about what exactly it had voted.

In Catalonia, businesspeople who claim to be acting as disinterested brokers (they must be the only people who do are not moved by any personal interest) as well as athletes on the payroll of autocrats, amongst others, offer lessons of democratic radicalism. Without bothering to stop and analyze the long list of advantages and disadvantages of referenda as one of the possible forms of direct democracy, they hurry to recommend one for Catalonia, as if it were a sign of respectability in certain sectors. But there are reasons to suspect that they appeal to DINO: “Democracy In Name Only”; a democracy only in word, but not in deed.

The great sin of our democracy would be so they say;  “they do not allow us bring out the polls” (when in Catalonia we actually do nothing else but vote more often than is required by law), or that there are people in prison just for want of voting; or that the great sin would be (expressed more clearly by those who prefer to avoid euphemisms) that we are not allowed to exercise the right for  self-determination understood as a right to secession, according to some alleged fundamental right, even if the United Nations only contemplates such a right for colonies or cases of serious violation of human rights.

In fact written constitutions do not contemplate the right for self-determination understood as the right to regional secession via referendum (nor certainly is it contemplated by any of the separatists regarding a future hypothetical constitution of an independent Catalonia).   There must be some logic when so many civilized countries have reached the same conclusion.  Would we (Catalans) allow that the (City of) Hospitalet become an (additional) Autonomous Community (in Spain) instead of a municipality if a majority of residents in the city wished it, even if it has more inhabitants than more than one of Spain´s autonomous communities?

Would we allow the city of  l’Hospitalet to become an Autonomous Region of Spain instead of a municipality if a majority of its inhabitants wanted so when it has more inhabitants than some Spanish regions?

A referendum on self-determination is not something that any a Spanish government could actually offer (even if it consisted of a coalition government between Podemos – Far Left – and ERC – separatist – ), because it would be automatically annulled by the Constitutional Court, not without triggering a major destabilizing crisis.    In order to make such a referendum real, a reform of the Spanish Constitution would be required through an “aggravated procedure” (i.e. the approval by a two thirds majority, after two consecutive parliamentary sessions and a final ratification referendum before the actual referendum on self-determination), making it the only written Constitution of the developed world accepting such a right to self-determination.

Referendum, Preferendum or Neverendum

We can still carry out the exercise consisting of putting ourselves in the shoes of those who behave as if constitutional constraints did not exist, in order to evaluate the consistency of their proposal. Joan Tardá’s (separatist MP in Spain´s Congress) proposal consisting of a referendum including three options coincides with a similar proposal in the United Kingdom (called by some a “preferendum”) consisting of a second referendum with three alternatives options.  Such proposals suffer from the illusion of explanatory depth. They happen to be superficially persuasive proposals, even if they do not resist any serious analysis of their implications, although it is possible that at least in the British case there could be legal coverage and at this point in time  (almost three years after the initial referendum), a minimum of clarity on what would each option actually consist of and their respective implications (i.e. May agreement, Withdrawing the exit request or  Exit without agreement).

It is not known whether such a formula was born out of Tardá´s deep convictions or rather out of the need to try one of the few types of referendum which has not yet been tested in Catalonia. The N9 (November 9th  2014) referendum  included a “tree-question” (a “freeway toward yes” according to an expert); On S-27 of 2015, “plebiscitary” elections were called; and on Oct. 1st  of 2017 a binary question was formulated which according to its promoters, including Tardá, gave rise to a democratic mandate, even if there was no electoral authority, the date was established unilaterally, and there were none of the rules in place established by the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe, which could offer minimum legitimacy to a democratic procedure of these characteristics.

No referendum amongst those proposed by the pro-independence parties will ever count with guarantees regarding the permanence of an independent Catalonia in the EU.  However surely the separatists would strive to hide this feature from voters.   As with Brexit in 2016, we would be voting on a lie. This of course, regarding the option for independence. If another of the three options were the federal formula, we could ask “what sort of federalism?”, based on what agreement, when the separatist parties would actually be campaigning not for an agreement but for separation?

Asking on three options avoids the binary dilemma (implying less in terms of clarity), but it would nevertheless raise numerous problems (even if it were constitutional): if the system consisted of simply having the option with more votes win, it could for example consist of having a winning option obtaining only 34% of the votes, raising a serious problem of legitimacy (it could also be the less desirable option for the majority of all voters). If it consisted of determining the winner by using the Borda procedure (a system of points such as the one traditionally employed in the Eurovision Festival), it could result in a totally different winner from the first case or vis-a-vis the winner in a two-round referendum.

A referendum is as good as the consensus which precedes it and which follows it, such as the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland or the referendum for the approval of the Constitution in Spain.

In absence of minimum consensus, there is a risk of ending up with  “a Tsipras” (turning a NO into a YES after the 2015 referendum, only a few days apart); a kneejerk twist or kalotoumba in Greek.  The examples raised on self-determination processes are those coming from countries at war, from cases in remote decades, from a country without a written constitution, or from a case not understood in Catalonia, i.e. Canada.   It is believed by many that in the mentioned country the “Law of Clarity” allows referendums for self-determination when in fact it´s in place in order to reduce its likelihood, which is also the reason why it´s rejected by the Quebec separatists.   Secessionist referendums have the risk of creating destabilizing domino effects (both internal and external), needing to make a somewhat arbitrary but crucial decision for the result; how to define the electoral body?:  would it be the whole of Catalonia? The autonomous Catalonia within Spain? The Catalan-speaking “countries” of Spain? Israel with the Arabs included? Only the Jews? Crimea? Ukraine? East Ukraine?  Such decisions require converting a  territorial scalpel into realities, as is the case in most parts of Europe (except those which have been the object of recent ethnic cleansing), where it is difficult to find a portion of land, however small, where more than one community that is appealed by the notion of being “a people” does not coexist.

Catalonia is so divided that holding a referendum without the purpose of ratifying a broad agreement across boundaries would only serve the purpose of celebrating and deepening such a division – a division that has scarce randomness and is increasingly explainable by ethnolinguistics -.     However what´s actually important for many is not that but instead controlling the agenda; asking the right question in order to better influence the evolutionary battle which defines which issues are to be discussed and thus influencing multidimensional voter preferences, continuing to ensure parliamentary majorities and social power.

Albert Branchadell (linguist and academic) explained this very well in his articles in the newspaper ARA;   the superpowers of a given moment and the correlation of international forces decide which unilaterally declared separations are to succeed, which referendums are to be celebrated, who participates, with which rules, and whether or not the results are recognized. And when such guarantees occur and voters avoid reformism for the medium term, the result is not usually breaking apart but maintenance of the status quo.

Laws were passed which destroy the division of powers. The offices of Catalan administration are full of partisan symbols just like in a banana republic.

Some voices, aware of the fact that constitutions in developed countries prevent any referendums on self-determination during periods of peace and stability, propose a non-binding referendum. However such an option would result in generating “free of charge” positions manifested themselves, and hence it would be impossible for results to be used in order to express voters’ preferences on anything tangible and applicable.    It would be a huge waste of time, the Nth one, and an irresponsibility while matters of serious social urgency remain unsolved.   Do we really need to count votes again? It would be a feast for destabilizers, robots, trolls, for Twitter squads  (or not so Tweet-like) … and then the «disinterested» middlemen and the few intellectuals who still have friends everywhere could continue to write articles and books and propose new referendums, which, this time, would solve everything.

Nor do I believe is a solution proposing a referendum which establishes a broad parliamentary agreement above a threshold of 55, 60, 65 percent. What would happen if 75% vote for a winning solution and that the other 25% are concentrated in a specific cultural and geographical community? And if on top it has the support of a blocking majority in the whole of Spain?    “Let them have it” would be the usual answer, albeit expressed in a more sophisticated way.   Or “ask them to leave”, when one ceases to use euphemisms.   What we need, instead, are inclusive solutions ensuring coexistence, enjoying broad internal and external support, which allow us to live in a multicultural and open society without leaving anyone out, and on the contrary, attracting new citizens.

Radicality vs. Democratic Quality

In Catalonia since 2012, presidents of the Generalitat  (Catalan Government) are simply not accountable to citizens, and if it were up to them their administration should be the object of debate.  Many suspect that one of the great (conscious or not) motivations behind the Process (pro separatist process)  has been to avoid precisely any democratic debate and accountability regarding mismanagement, corruption and budget cuts by Convergencia (the political party in office)  or more recently on companies fleeing Catalonia on the fall of 2017.  (Catalan) Parliament has been marginalized, it does not approve any laws, it works in ears-dropper mode, especially as a television stage, while institutions tailored in purest Maduro style are inaugurated. It grants power to parallel organizations which concede themselves collective and representative authority: ANC, CDRs, “Council of the Republic”.   It has even attempted to pass disengagement laws which literally abolish the division of powers. On top, offices of public administration are full of partisan symbols just like in a banana republic.

We have been presided over by a government which did not carry out that which is mandated by existing norms  (to manage its attributions, very important ones by the way) but which ceded political leadership, as well as collective spheres and instruments, transferring them to opaque partisan “sanhedrins” who in turn made decisions affecting us all . The opposition was intimidated through encouragement of the persecution of mayors in the streets, or by not condemning directed “warnings” and intimidating graffiti against those who do not receive holy communion with the dominant discourse, or sometimes even their relatives.

The pro-independence majority cry out for a “democratic” solution but has used election criteria such as; “Puigdemont or whoever says Puigdemont”. And in the past;  «Mas or whoever says Mas». Some of those who swallowed this pill later promoted relatively successfully primaries in the townhall of Barcelona, ​​perhaps as some form of atonement. The crumbs (for the nationalists, municipal problems have always been crumbs), through primaries, but for the supreme leader a divine rod.

An alleged referendum was organized under a partisan electoral authority which dissolved itself just before voting, on a date chosen to favor a given option, based on a tailormade question, without an approved legal framework and without a census.    All of this by a parliamentary majority which has refused during decades to change a regional electoral law which suffers clear democratic shortcomings. Public television is totally manipulated in favor of pro  Catalan government majority, as any impartial observer knows and has denounced it; not only Ferran Monegal in his great articles, but also “Reporters Without Borders”.  The institutions of collective democracy have been devalued: not only public media, also the Mossos d’Esquadra (Catalan police), the school system and civil service. The mentioned not only depresses public morale but leads to having half of Catalans (at least) loosing trust in the final use of their tax contributions.

Solutions with European Logic

A broad agreement is necessary, and in the meantime, the democratic status-quo of a member state of the EU protects us.   And it does so in several directions: it prevents radical recentralization and it also prevents unilateral independence, apart from leaving intact our rights as citizens of an EU state.  There are many things to improve under our current paralysis, but until  sufficient consensus on a needed reform is reached, the only thing which can be done is to interpret reality in one direction or another, and to use, as productively as possible, the existing basic legal framework.

Sometimes some pro-independence leaders demand a mediation by the European Union. In practice, this has already occurred. Every time those responsible in Europe have spoken they have done so, apart from reminding the obvious; that an independent Catalonia would be outside of the EU, stating that any reform needs to be based on the result of a broad deal achieved through dialogue. This is very different from applying the rule of the majority without too many rules. In fact when the EU has been deeply involved in the details of an agreement on sovereignty within the Union, it has not left supporters of democratic radicalism very satisfied. For example, fundamentalist Reverend Paisley (who is a true “unionist”) complained that following the Good Friday Agreement, which pacified Northern Ireland with the EU’s full involvement, it left the province under an undemocratic complex government-sharing accord, as explained in: “,Democracy, A Very Short Introduction , written by the political scientist Bernard Crick,  a book which should be compulsory reading for Quim Torra (present president of Catalonia).

As the negotiators of the “Good Friday Agreement” knew well, democracy defined as the rule of the majority without a stable institutional framework can lead to ethnic barbarism, just like in the Balkans or in some African societies. That is why the European Union and the eurozone are precisely a complex construction made of adaptive and progressive agreements that go beyond rule of majority. Stable and healthy democracies are so because they protect basic rules from circumstantial majorities.  The problem with separatism is not only, as is often stated in non-separatist circles, that it does not have the majority, but the implication on what they would do if they one day achieved such a majority.

Pro-independence people who are pro Europe at heart should reflect on the consistency of their dreams or at least on their priorities: does it make sense to break with the rest of Spain, a faithful partner of the European project, creating a tailormade democracy y or even playing with democracy, when in the end we are all meeting in a united more integrated Europe?    Or does it not  make more sense to be at the forefront of the struggle for a federal and democratic Europe without borders, where member states transfer additional sovereignty to the European Union, which is the only level which can hope to tickle the markets we want to regulate, letting decisions on attributions between state and regional levels, reside on criteria such as; prestige, efficiency, work well done and good governance?

It would be more logical to renounce to independence as an immediate goal, just as the socialists and the communists in our democracies have renounced to a classless society as an objective to be achieved over any other; not only because we are not a majority, but because we have agreed to respect a series of rights and procedures that are what make our democratic coexistence possible. We have not given up a society without classes as the horizon for our commitment (by the way, a belief we modestly consider is more dignifying than fighting for the independence of a rich region), but we have rather agreed to prioritize a coexistence framework that allows us to adopt reforms which if we do things right, can get us close enough to our ideals, whilst respecting those who do not think like us.

The most radical nationalist leaders, such as: Torra, Puigdemont, Vox, like Bannon and Putin, know well what they are doing; just by destabilizing our democracy will they be able to achieve their goals.

The functioning of the division of powers both in Spain and throughout the European Union can be improved (for example, in the direction of preventing the sort of partisan bias of the Catalan administration we live under in Catalonia).    But in Spain, the justice system has actually sent to jail important members of the political party which has been in executive office for most years in recent periods; it has condemned the same party for a very serious case of corruption (triggering a change in national government), and has also sent to jail a prominent member of the royal family in the meantime. It certainly seems like a judiciary branch less subjected to the executive branch than that which came out of the Catalan Disengagement Laws of September 2017. It is a judiciary branch that can only be improved within the framework of European discipline, that which the pro independence leaders only intend to take advantage of in an opportunistic way when it favors them, when in reality it is necessary all the time, when it favors them and when it does not.

Today Spain is part of the most integrated and democratic region of the planet: Europe. The military are out of the political game since decades ago,  participating in international peace missions, just like our students participate in the Erasmus program. Individual freedoms are more threatened by inequalities and poverty than by the lack of formal rights. Our collective organization can surely be reformed and should be reformed, in the context of an improved European federation. But the recipes necessary to make it happen will certainly not come from Mr. Torra and Mr. Puigdemont.

Francesc Trillas | 01 Abr 2019

Professor of the Autonomous University of Barcelona


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