History’s Window: Independence referendums give people big power

More Independent referendums are held. Do you know why?

Cover photo by Màrius Montón/ Wikimedia

During the independence referendum in Catalonia, police stormed into polling stations fighting people who were trying to vote taking ballot boxes to prevent Catalonians from holding a referendum. Many people were badly injured.

Why the fuss? Independence referendums are a major tipping point wresting a nation’s future out of the hands of a government which may not be too keen on the idea.

An independence referendum is a general vote to decide if people want independence from the country that claims them. This type of voting happens when nationalists–a party or group who emphasize shared group identity as the most important factor to organize around politically–achieves political success, meaning that they gain the most seats in parliament. They may choose to negotiate with the government to gain greater sovereignty, or ownership of a territory, but it can be hard to negotiate because the population or the larger country may not agree. If the government agrees, then they can hold an independence referendum, but some referendums are held without the government’s consent.

The first independence referendum took place on October 27, 1846 in Liberia which was founded by the United States as a colony for African-Americans. They were arguing with the government who sponsored them about the right to pay taxes so Liberian wealthy people decided to hold a referendum to solve the issue. The US did not recognize Liberian independence at first but Liberia eventually succeeded in gaining independence from the United States.

On September 18, 2014, Scotland had an independence referendum involving the United Kingdom. In the 1920s, the Labour Party was committed to home rule, which is the power of a country to self-govern, but they kept losing political power because they were getting less and less popular. In 1934, the Scottish National Party was formed but didn’t achieve any success until the 1960s. In 2011 the Scottish National Party won the 2011 parliamentary election, gaining enough seats to hold an independence referendum. In January 2012, the United Kingdom offered to not only giving the Scottish government the power to hold the referendum but also allowing them to set the terms of the referendum. The party leader, Alex Salmond, announced that it would be held in 2014. The two governments continued to negotiate until October 2014, when they both agreed on the referendum details. The results of this referendum are that the no side got 55.3% of the vote and the yes side got 44.7% of the vote so they didn’t achieve independence from the United Kingdom.

Interestingly, on November 9, 2014, Catalonia had an independence referendum to determine if people wanted Catalonia to become a state independent of Spain. On January 23, 2013, the Parliament of Catalonia adopted the Declaration of Sovereignty and of the Right to Decide of the Catalan People to allow citizens to decide if they wanted to be independent. On December 12, 2013, the Catalonian government announced there was a deal between political parties on a date to hold the referendum. It would be held on November 9, 2014, with two questions: do you want Catalonia to become a state? And in case of an affirmative response, do you want this state to be independent?

The Spanish government appealed to the Constitutional Court of Spain on the referendum. The court decided on September 29, 2014 to temporarily stop the referendum because they didn’t like the non-binding decree. Later, on October 14 2014, Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia from 2010 to 2015, proposed a citizen participation process as an alternative. However, the Spanish government again appealed to the court. The court decided on November 4, 2014, to temporarily stop this process because it was illegal according to Spain’s laws. The Catalonian government still pushed forward with this process in defiance of the court and the voting went as planned. The results of this were 80.8% voted yes-yes, 10.1% voted yes-no, and 4.5% voted no.

To help you understand why Catalonia held an election, its history needs to be explained. In 1714, King Felipe V invaded the capital of Catalonia, Barcelona. During the Spanish Civil War, Francisco Franco bombed Barcelona with planes and captured the city in 1939. He banned the Catalonian language from being spoken in public. Today however, it’s being taught in schools and spoken by Catalonians. Spain adopted a democratic constitution in 1978 which was approved by 90% of Catalonians to grant Catalonia greater autonomy to make Catalonia self-governing but preventing Catalonia from becoming independent from Spain. Only the Spanish parliament can change the constitution.

In 2006, a statute was passed in Spain to grant Catalonia more powers but Spain’s Constitutional Court reversed it in 2010. The referendum was declared illegal and Spain’s Constitutional Court suspended the referendum on September 7, 2017 due to the Spanish Government declaring that the referendum ignored the Spanish Constitution of 1978. When the referendum kept going, the Spanish National Police and Civil Guard arrested the administration who was in charge of referendum. They also went to polling stations and took all the ballot papers to prevent the referendum from happening. The referendum took place on October 1, 2017 because the Catalonian government allowed people to vote at any polling station before the police took action. The question to Catalonians was: do you want Catalonia to become an independent state in the form of a republic? 92.01% voted yes and 7.99% voted no. The Catalonian parliament declared independence from Spain. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy invoked article 155 from the Spanish Constitution of 1978 on October 21 to give Madrid, the capital of Spain, the power to take direct control over Catalonia which means he closed down the parliament, jailed the members of the parliament, and called for new elections to take place on December 21, 2017. A Spanish judge later issued an international arrest warrant for ex-president Carles Puigdemont in Belgium eight days after arresting the members of parliament. The Spanish High Court withdrew the warrant because the Belgian court could deny some of the accusations against him. This would result in the charges being less than the four other people who were arrested.

The reasons for people wanting independence from a country often stem from events that happened in the past. The past always affects the future and people will often remember negative events that push them into wanting independence such as arguing with governments about where they get to live or a brutal king oppressing a culture that was already there. Another reason is that a party wants independence for their country because they believe that their country needs to gain separation from a bigger, more powerful state like Spain. Typically, two governments agree to hold a referendum. The process for this is one government asks another government to hold a referendum like in the case of the Scottish referendum. For this to work, different parties have to be in agreement to the same conditions such as the date of the referendum and who can vote. Later, both governments sign a non-binding contract that says they both agree to the terms of the referendum that will take place.

The incident of the Spanish police preventing people from voting was shocking.he police stormed into polling stations taking ballot boxes, firing rubber bullets and using tear gas at protesters in an attempt to stop the referendum from happening. They even beat up people with batons as they tried to vote. According to regional officials, more than 800 people got injured. After the voting ended, Spain’s prime minister Mariano Rajoy said, “At this point, I can tell you very clearly: Today a self-determination referendum in Catalonia didn’t happen. We proved today that our state reacts with all its legal means against every provocation.” Spain’s highest court declared the referendum illegal. Catalonian ex-president Carles Puigdemont condemned the violence believing the country has won the right ot independence. Pugimont himself was due to vote in Girona when police smashed their way to the polling station and he had to vote in a nearby village. Two hours after the referendum began, regional government spokesperson Jordi Turll said that 73% of voting stations were open despite the police intervention. He accused Madrid of being responsible for “a state violence unknown to Spain since the age of Franco.”

When asked by a reporter if the unrest was worth it, he said “Defending democracy will be always worth it.” People stood up to the police to cast their vote in an act of defiance against Madrid. In conclusion, independent referendums are necessary to ensure that people can form a new country that expresses their freedom.

History’s Window is a regular column in which Tomato500 discusses independent referendums. Got a suggestion for Tomato500? Email us at 8fortymagazine@gmail.com.

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