Sunday, June 25, 2017

Justice and democracy or a self-determination referendum

In the book “The Morning After” Canadian journalist Chantal Hébert explains what would have happened if the secessionists had won the Quebec referendum of 1995 by a small margin (in fact, they lost). The political chaos and uncertainty that she describes has actually taken place more than twenty years later with the Brexit referendum of 2016. One year later, the UK seems to know what 52% of the electorate did not want on the day of the referendum, but they do not know what they or their leaders want for their future. It seems that a yes or no totally legal self-determination referendum has not been a good tool to find the real will of the people. Now imagine something similar but without a legal framework, without a census, and without a neutral electoral authority. That is precisely what the leaders of the Catalan pro-independence government want to do using their control of the autonomous executive and their majority of the Catalan Parliament, favoured by a non-proportional electoral law that gives their coalition more than half of the seats with less than half of the votes. Amartya Sen, a scholar that has devoted his life to think about justice and democratic choice, in an interview with The Guardian reflecting on the Brexit referendum, spoke of the disadvantages of this kind of plebiscites. The idea of a yes/no self-determination referendum is superficially appealing. The Economist supported this idea until they saw it implemented in Britain. Since then, they have backpedaled. It is very easy to suggest it for others. The last self-determination referendums of states in the USA took place just before the American Civil War. Referendums have been promoted recently by leaders such as Erdogan, Orban, Wilders, Putin, the leaders of the Serbian part of Bosnia-Herzegovina including the mayor of Srevrenica (as we could see in a recent scaring BBC documentary in Newsnight) and by dictators in the past. The first thing Marine Le Pen wanted to do had she been elected President of France was to have a referendum on the EU. Referendums can also be used for a good cause, like in the approval of the Spanish Constitution in 1978, or the Irish Good Friday agreement of 1997. These two cases have in common a democratic consensus (the unity of democratic forces) and international support. A yes/no self-determination referendum can be a cause of great division among Catalan citizens or in other similarly diverse societies. That is why the Commission of the Council of Europe for Democracy through Law (the Venice Commission) recommends to hold them only under very strict conditions, including a strong legal framework and a neutral democratic authority. Illegal self-determination referendums in otherwise democratic societies are not in the frontier of best practices. Spain needs a broad agreement for a federal reform that can be supported by people who strongly believe in it and by people that may find a common ground around it. Such a detailed agreement could then be voted in a referendum. That could be as legitimate as other legal referendums, and in addition it would be less divisive, and it would fit much better with a European Union that makes progress towards more unity and integration, and that wants to build more bridges than walls between its citizens and communities.

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