A man wearing a sweater bearing the ‘Estelada’ Catalan pro-independence flag during a demonstration calling for the release of jailed separatist leaders in Brussels recently. AFP PIC

THE Catalan independence fiasco in Spain may have dissipated, but is far from settled.

Central government resolve in Madrid has come down like a tonne of bricks on the Generalitat de Catalunya (Catalonian regional government) in Barcelona, forcing its regional president, Carles Puigdemont, to flee into exile rather than face down charges of sedition and rebellion against the Spanish state. Catalonia is now under emergency direct rule from Madrid until regional elections on Dec 21.

Catalonia has been a part of the ancient Spanish empire since at least the 1700s. It is the richest region of modern Spain and has understandably always considered itself to be a distinct “nation” with its own language and culture. That it can make it on its own as an independent state is beyond dispute, even as Spain’s continued viability without Catalonia is open to question.

Despite its recent illegal and, therefore, unrecognised independence referendum, it is widely assumed that, as in Scotland and Quebec (where independence referenda were properly held), a majority in Catalonia was and likely remains anti-independence.

Ramming an independence vote through was a serious tactical error of the authorities in Barcelona, energising otherwise passive supporters of the political status quo and providing Madrid with an almost perfect pretext to paint the pro-independence groups as little more than a narcissistic bunch and to assert central authority with a firm and decisive counter-punch.

Moreover, many of Spain’s best-known corporations based in Barcelona had to quickly shift out their headquarters, especially when it became known that Madrid would not countenance Catalonia’s independence and that the national government had the backing of the European Union (EU).

But, why has it all come to such a sad juncture? Perhaps it is best encapsulated in a recent apt description in The Economist: “Pinch yourself. This is not some poor, decrepit country but, incredibly, a modern western European democracy — Spain.”

Yes, as if any more reminders are needed, political risk factors are piling up in what until recently was regarded as politically stable and economically prosperous advanced democracies in the developed West.

If Spain and goings-on in Catalonia that we had thought were settled through the Spanish War of Succession long ago represent the latest poster child of Western malaise and dysfunction, need we all be surprised that “nobody emerges well from the sorry tale of arrogance, inflexibility and even violence in Catalonia”, as The Economist further noted?

It is not supposed to end up this way. The triumphalism of the “end of history” that political scientist Francis Fukuyama once foretold (but has since recanted), democracy has ushered in for the entire world, is now utterly premature, but the arrogance associated with this persists in spite of all the evidence showing up, even in the West.

Democracy as currently practised and deemed to be universally applicable is supposed to see a virtuous cycle descending on humanity, building up sustainably vibrant economies and ensuring disputes are settled via the ballot box.

Moreover, such pesky identity issues as distinct cultures and languages are supposed to have dissolved or at least paled into insignificance, if not irrelevance, as the rational man takes over, both politically and economically.

Catalonia probably will do much to dispel the notion that issues over identity (as manifested in differences over language, religion, ethnicity and such) will eventually go away. They have not, even as the EU works tirelessly to make national sovereignty irrelevant.

Such issues will just have to be managed by people and their political representatives especially. Democratic governance may be preferable, but we should not be deluded into believing it has magical qualities and redeeming powers that it has now been shown not to possess.

Catalonia may also show that “Balkanisation”, or the splintering of established countries into smaller ones, is simply politically and even economically illogical and is no longer deemed acceptable.

The creation of new countries should have ended once the process of decolonisation is accomplished. Yet, in recent decades, we have witnessed the splintering of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, and such new countries as Timor Leste and South Sudan born.

The results have not been a happy one, in particular with the persistence of mass suffering in South Sudan. The United Nations now counts 193 member states. It should just add Palestine and then call a moratorium on new members.


The writer views developments
in the nation, the region and the wider world from his vantage point
in Kuching, Sarawak

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