No winners in Catalan independence vote

THE clash on Sunday between Barcelona and Madrid was not in any way related to the traditional football rivalry as one would expect. The events on Oct 1 saw an escalation of political tension between the Catalonia regional government and Spanish central government over the unilateral call for an independence referendum of the region.

First, let's get the facts right. The Catalan government had determined to call for a polemic popular vote on a matter beyond its jurisdiction, an initiative which was further nullified by the Spanish Constitutional Tribunal and proclaimed unconstitutional.

Furthermore, the arbitrary nature of the referendum, lacking any of the guarantees necessary for a referendum (a proper referendum campaign and an established list of voters among others), left the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, with no other choice but to immediately declare it illegal.

However, the contention that turned the dispute into a full-blown confrontation arose from the government's brutal response to the demands by Catalans to rightfully exercise their rights to self-determination, freedom of expression and democracy. Thus, the show of excessive force was not only inappropriate but utterly unnecessary since Madrid had outright rejected any legal binding outcome.

Thousands of ballot papers were already confiscated and polling centres cordoned off with heavy police presence in the final days leading to the referendum. The situation got worse as videos went viral of riot police violently breaking up unarmed voters in an attempt to suppress votes on the day of voting. The shameful incident was not only undemocratic but also left a total of 460 people injured according to the Barcelona mayor.

The whole fiasco seemed like a surreal throwback to the era of dictatorship. The lack of political leadership was glaring in its failure to avert the political spat. A fallout could potentially lead to worsening political gridlock. Not only did Rajoy's (mis)handling become a public relations disaster for his government but he has also unknowingly fuelled the march for Catalan nationalism and gained them sympathetic allies.

It was clear from the beginning that the illegal non-binding referendum was politically motivated by the loud political class minority to provoke Madrid and later on posing as victims of the Spanish repression. Unfortunately, Madrid took the bait, hook, line and sinker to end up as the aggressors.

Madrid should have been more tactful in handling the matter by calling the referendum's bluff. All it needed was creative counter arguments, not even an acknowledged campaign, to delegitimise the unilateral aspiration for independence. Even the Brexit tug-of-war faced by the UK could have been a better scare tactic and potential reminder towards pro-independence voters.

Rajoy even failed to pressure the European Union to be more assertive on the matter when Brussels has repeatedly done so on a number of issues concerning Eastern European states when they infringe on unconstitutionality. Even if he did, the EU's inaction and lack of response by dragging its feet is really disheartening especially when the aftermath of this crucial vote will cause ripples in the continent for years to come. It would be too late then for the EU to act proactively when the tsunami of disintegration of member states hits hard.

It should be made clear that Catalonia is not facing repression or abuse from the rest of Spain. On the contrary, it has been given freedom, respect and allowance to have its own government, language and police. Perhaps the only contingent matter is the fact that Catalonia contributes more in funding while certain autonomous regions contribute nothing. Regardless, it is hardly a reason for secession.

Events of 1-O should have provided an opportunity to manifest the maturity of European democracy but has turned out to be a disgraceful assault on the tenets of liberal democracy. In contrast, the government of Iraq should be praised for being more level headed in dealing with the recent Kurdish referendum for independence. Baghdad's hefty sanctions imposed on Erbil are not justifiable but at least it did not overstep its boundaries.

Unfortunately, far from having a winner, every stakeholder in the 1-O farce is in turn a loser. Catalans lost their democratic rights, both Madrid and Barcelona lost politically and the EU its moral high ground.

The writer is guest columnist for a political magazine based in Mexico. A researcher and commentator of Latin American affairs, he was formerly information officer and political analyst for the Embassy of Malaysia in Mexico City. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com