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Cast a long shadow

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on January 08, 2018 Published on October 13, 2017

An arm full: A students shows her arm painted with the colours of an Estelada (Catalan separatist flag) and the words "October 1, We will vote" before a political meeting in favor of the banned independence referendum outside the University of Barcelona in September.   -  REUTERS

Sukumar Muralidharan   -  BUSINESS LINE

The Catalonian vote for secession is part of the continuing shake-out that began with the Eurozone debt crisis of 2011

Once called the favoured device of the demagogue, the referendum today is seemingly the art of asking a fuzzy question and obtaining an uncomfortably clear-cut answer. If deliberative democracy enjoys a certain vogue among scholars of politics, governance by referendum is its polar opposite. In a post-truth environment, democracy on momentary impulse is a practice freighted with danger.

The independence vote in Spain’s Catalonia province is part of the continuing shake-out that began with the Eurozone currency crisis of 2011. For those with longer memories and an inclination for literature, it all goes back to the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, when Catalonia was the last redoubt of republican values against General Franco and his principal patrons, Hitler and Mussolini. Between these two perceptions lurks the uncomfortable thought that the Catalonian secession looks suspiciously like a rebellion of the rich.

Decades of repression and embitterment followed Catalonia’s fall to Franco’s forces, but democracy was restored and a large measure of political and cultural autonomy recovered, since the unlamented dictator’s death. Spain’s accession to the European community in the third round of its expansion in 1986 opened up new avenues. With its membership of the ambitious Eurozone integration project since the late-’90s, Spain entered a phase of unprecedented growth and prosperity.

The global financial meltdown of 2008 sounded the first notes of warning and then came the full-blown Eurozone debt crisis in 2011. Spain’s economic boom seemed suddenly to be at risk of collapsing. Aside from a general sense of political malaise, this also put Spain’s precarious compact with its 17 regions at risk.

A long-running separatist insurgency in the northern Basque country was appeased by allowing regional autonomy to unprecedented degree, including a more than generous share in tax revenues. The Basque country is empowered to collect most of its taxes, yielding only a very modest portion to the government in Madrid.

If the special dispensation passed without serious scrutiny when times were good, the other regions are now looking closely at it, demanding something similar to deal with their adversities. Madrid sees the Basque deal as unique and refuses similar favours elsewhere, particularly to Catalonia, where it stands to lose revenue of the order of €16 billion.

These issues were rehearsed through a Catalonian provincial election in 2012 without an unambiguous mandate. The recent referendum was an effort to end the uncertainty. With the Spanish government seemingly intent on ruining its case by a ham-handed crackdown on intending voters, the Catalonian parties were able to claim that the 92 per cent endorsement received from less than half the total electorate, ended all residual doubt.

As passions subsided and both sides began the sober stock-taking of what had just happened, the Spanish government built up its case with endorsements from France and Germany. Many among the undecided in Catalonia came out to voice their opposition to the separation. And the leadership in Madrid offered some manner of an apology for the violent police action against intending voters. Wise and moderate counsels proposed for a fresh compact of unity. How far that can proceed without setting off tremors from the other regions, remains to be seen.

The Catalonian vote for secession introduces a fresh source of turmoil in the European project. UK Prime Minister Theresa May is just discovering how arduous it is to fulfil a referendum mandate crafted within a stark binary of choices. In the headiness of her accession to the top job, May posed the UK exit as a clean break. When the talks actually began, she awoke to the discomfiting truth that the threads to Europe were so complex that unravelling them could damage her country’s internal fabric. That context of hesitancy on her part has triggered an unsubtle effort to undermine her leadership, promising further schisms on the road to Brexit.

The incidents in Europe are an instance of the integrative logic that held sway in more affluent parts of the globe falling apart. In the Kurdish region of Iraq, the masters of the global order confront another reality: of the disintegrative logic they actively promoted achieving an expected result, but one they never wanted. For long years, the US and its Western allies encouraged the Kurdish regions to maintain autonomy from the Central government in Baghdad. They sponsored a new Iraqi Constitution that provided for a high degree of regional autonomy and the creation of clusters of provinces that would effectively function as a sub-national government. Early in September, when the Kurdish leadership took the next logical step and carried out a referendum that returned an overwhelming verdict for independence, the West recoiled at the potential for chaos.

The major players in the regional power games were meanwhile, preparing their strategies. Turkey will perhaps blockade the oil pipelines running out of Iraq, cutting off the Kurdish government’s most important source of revenue. The more militant Turkish nationalists have vowed to never allow Kurdish control over the vital oil hub of Kirkuk. Iran, despite a record of promoting Kurdish resistance to Baghdad, has rebuffed this most recent adventure of its allies. Syria, with the obvious intent of finding strategic advantage against Turkey in the unending brutality of its civil war, has discretely left open the option of promoting an autonomous Kurdish region within its territory.

Deliberative democracy remains the least favoured means of dealing with the enveloping chaos. And democracy by impulse can only cause further aggravation.

Sukumar Muralidharan teaches at the school of journalism, OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat

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Published on October 13, 2017
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