Democracy in Catalonia

Catalan leaders are prevented from holding political office due to their political agenda and action

A democratic coup has just taken place in Brazil. This happened in two steps: in 2016, then-president Dilma Rousseff was impeached by a Senate vote; in 2018, following a Supreme Court vote, Lula is going to jail –and her predecessor happened to be the overwhelming favourite in the upcoming October election. The political elimination of these two leading figures means that the Workers’ Party has 'de facto' been barred from power. The judicial coup redoubles the parliamentary coup. Of course, the era of military dictatorship, when Dilma Rousseff was tortured, is over, although Jair Bolsonara, a far-right representative who, thanks to Lula’s elimination, could become the next president in six months’ time, dedicated his 2016 impeachment vote to the president’s torturer, and despite a tweet by the chief of staff of the armed forces exerting pressure on the eve of the Supreme Court decision: “The Brazilian army shares the feelings of all good citizens who reject impunity.”

The Brazilian example can help us analyze the current situation in Catalonia: this comparison is a way of breaking with the illusion fostered by the regional dimension of the conflict that the Catalan case is but an exception. Just like in Brazil, the Spanish State is sidelining, one by one, the candidates of the pro-independence majority to the presidency of Catalonia: Carles Puigdemont, Jordi Sànchez, then Jordi Turull. However, like in Brazil, the law is formally respected (not actual rights, though): they are barred from the presidency by court decisions though of course one is entitled to cast doubt upon the impartiality and independence of the judiciary. In Brazil, the same judges who persecute the Workers’ Party spare their right-wing opponents, despite the fact that the accusations against them are far worse. In Spain, there are reasons to fear that the arrest of whistle-blower Hervé Falciani (released from custody shortly afterwards) might serve simply as a bargaining chip to obtain the extradition of pro-independence elected officials who have sought refuge in Switzerland.

The battle for the presidency of Catalonia is truly a democratic issue. The point is not so much what one thinks of independence, but rather whether one has a right to think about it

Both in Catalonia and in Brazil, despite the violent repression by the police and the judiciary, or the revival of the heirs of past dictatorships, what is happening can thus be called a democratic coup. In the case of Catalonia, this logic is exacerbated: while Dilma Rousseff and Lula were sentenced respectively for doctoring public accounts and for corruption, and not because of their ideology, Catalan leaders are prevented from holding political office due to their political agenda and action. In Brazil, one might still consider that Lula is just a politician in prison; in Catalonia, political figures are jailed because of their politics: they can only be called political prisoners.

Therefore, the battle for the presidency of Catalonia is truly a democratic issue. The point is not so much what one thinks of independence, but rather whether one has a right to think about it. Incarcerating all the leaders who support independence means banning independence as an issue from the political sphere. This gives pro-independence parties an opportunity to test what is left of democracy in Spain. They have already nominated three candidates who can be called number 1, number 2 and number 3. Some may remember a British television series of fifty years ago that happened to be called “The Prisoner.” A secret agent is abducted and wakes up in a surreal village which is like an open-air prison where human beings play the role of living pieces in a game of chess. Under the name “number 6,” this man fought against a “number 2” (played by various actors!), in order to discover the real identity of… “number 1”. He always protested: “I am not a number! I am a free man!”

Perhaps democrats in Catalonia, regardless of whether they do support independence or not, should take these numbers seriously. They provide the means to measure through these representatives what remains in terms of democracy. A simple calculation suffices: by assigning one point to number 1, two to number 2, and so forth based on an arithmetic progression, the regression of democracy can be graded with a number (already minus 6 points). This result can also be converted into a percentage based on the proportion of pro-independence representatives. But the point is not just quantitative. What is at stake is not so much the name that will finally be pulled out of a hat by a judge from Spain, but rather the demonstration that the name does not matter so much in democracy. This would be like a lotto draw.

The important thing is not the leader himself (number 1), as would be the case in a vertical logic. Rather, what matters is the possibility (or lack thereof) for ideas to exist politically, whether one agrees with them or not. If representatives are numbers more than names, then we have a horizontal logic. This refusal to personalize power is already anticipated in the Puidgemont masks worn by protestors. If anyone can look like number 1, his identity is of little importance. Just like ordinary citizens, representatives embody democracy –all the more so if they are interchangeable. Such a political reversal of numbers thus transforms anti-democratic repression into the opportunity, if not of an invention, at least of a democratic affirmation: “We are numbers, and this is how we manifest our freedom!”

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The author is a Sociology professor, Université Paris-8 Vincennes-Saint-Denis. Latest publication: 'Populisme: le grand ressentiment', 2017 (Herder translation in 2018).