Catching the Referendum bug

Published: 1 October 2014
Author: Daniel Cetrà

The effects of the independence referendum are playing out beyond Holyrood, Westminster and the party conferences. The 19th of September also saw Catalonia, itself no stranger to constitutional debates, enter a new stand-off with Madrid. The dispute has once again set the Spanish Prime Minister on a collision course with the Catalan President, leading to an intervention by Spain’s Constitutional Court but, explains Dani Cetrà, that is unlikely to be the end of the story.

On Monday, in an urgent and non-scheduled plenary meeting, the Spanish Constitutional Court accepted for consideration the appeal presented by the Spanish government against the Catalan decree calling a consultation on independence on November 9 and the law on which it is based, the Catalan Law on Consultative Votes. Their acceptance of the appeal was not discretionary, as the Court must accept all appeals unless there are formal errors in the documentation.

This decision automatically represents the temporary suspension of the law and of the decree for a maximum period of 5 months. It also suspends ‘the rest of the actions’ deriving from the law or the decree’s implementation, including those taken by third parties.   

The Catalan Law on Consultative Votes was approved with the support of 80% of the Catalan Parliament on Friday 19 September, which by no coincidence was the day after the Scottish referendum. The Catalan president Artur Mas, from the Convergence and Union coalition, signed the decree calling the consultation in a solemn ceremony last Saturday.

The decree was carefully worded in order to make it difficult for the Constitutional Court to rule it illegal. Article 2 states that the aim of the consultation is to ‘discover the citizens’ opinion about Catalonia’s political future’ in order to introduce a ‘legal, political and institutional initiative’ at the state level. The main aim is thus to review Catalonia’s relationship with the rest of Spain in accordance with the consultative vote’s results. Implicit here is the invocation of the Catalan Parliament’s capacity to propose constitutional reform.


Thousands of citizens gathered yesterday in front of Catalonia’s town halls to protest against the temporary suspension of the decree and to demand the holding of the vote. This mobilisation was supported by pro-consultation and pro-independence political parties as well as various civil society groups.

Mas has insisted that the voting is not illegal because it is a non-binding consultation, not a referendum in disguise. He further questioned the separation of powers in Spain in the light of the ‘supersonic speed’ at which the Court has met to accept the Spanish government’s appeal. The centre-left and pro-independence Republican Left of Catalonia (ERC), which will win the next Catalan election according to the most recent opinion polls, insisted that the democratic mandate for a consultation should prevail. The Initiative for Catalonia Greens argued that this was another attempt of the Spanish government to solve an essentially political problem by judicial means.

Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy (Popular Party) insisted that the consultation is ‘unconstitutional and undemocratic’ and ‘an offense to the rights of all Spaniards’. Rajoy accused the Catalan government of trying to steal the right to decide on matters of national sovereignty from all Spaniards.

Towards Unexplored Territory

The events described above were all to be expected. Mas wanted to fulfil his electoral compromise of calling a consultation on independence, which enjoys widespread support in Catalonia: some 80% of the Catalan population and the Catalan parliament support the holding of a vote on this matter. Equally, the Spanish government had already announced that they would immediately challenge the decree in the Constitutional Court.

There is a clash of legitimacies between opposing social and political majorities in Catalonia and in the rest of Spain. This clash reflects competing visions on democracy, nationhood and sovereignty, and has resulted in a rather ‘judicial’ debate that revolves around stricter or more flexible readings of the constitution to determine whether the consultation is legal.

We are now approaching unexplored territory. The Catalan government faces the dilemma of whether to accept the temporary suspension of the decree or continue with the consultation process as though nothing had happened. The government has ambiguously stated that it will suspend the institutional campaign, ‘at least in a preventive and temporary manner’, but also that it will present a defence to the appeal in order to try to lift the suspension.

Mas will meet with the leaders of the pro-consultation parties during the next few days to agree on an answer to the temporary suspension of the consultation. Discrepancies are likely to increase, which could be seen as parties taking positions for the perhaps most plausible future scenario: plebiscitary elections. This would be instead of the referendum. The parties would unambiguously campaign for or against independence and would seek to obtain a majority in the parliament. It could include a commitment to negotiate, or even unilaterally declare independence, in the event of a Yes vote. 

Whatever the next step is, there is no doubt that Catalan politics will be very animated in the weeks to come.

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