Catalonia’s lessons on federalism

(First published in theSun on 11 October 2017, here).

ON Oct 1, the Spanish region of Catalonia – in which its capital Barcelona is located – held its second independence referendum in three years. The Catalan government announced that the official results showed the referendum passed overwhelmingly. But all of this took place amid heavy action by the Spanish police who attempted to seize ballot boxes and disperse voters, resulting in hundreds getting injured; the police were enforcing a court ban on the vote.

The Spanish government has good reason to fear Catalan independence. The region makes up 16% of the country’s population, and more importantly, contributes some 20% to the Spanish national economy. In 2014, Catalonia paid about US$11.8 billion more to Spain’s tax authorities than they got back, although it is difficult to calculate returns that are received in the form of health and education services.
Spain’s government has reacted quickly by adopting a new law to facilitate the relocation of companies outside Catalonia. Should there be a unilateral declaration of independence, which the Catalan government refuses to back down on, this will surely implicate Spain’s business and overall economic environment.

This is not the first time the world has seen regions threatening to secede from its parent nation. In 2014, Scotland held a similar independence referendum, in which the “no” vote eventually won, but 44.7% voted in favour of leaving the United Kingdom. Closer to home, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines have all experienced threats of secession based on perceived marginalisation of ethnic minorities.

In Malaysia, no states have gone so far as to agitate for any sort of referendum, but in recent years there have been calls for secession in states like Sabah and Sarawak. A similar comparison of the economic contributions Catalonia makes to Spain would be Selangor’s contributions to Malaysia – an estimated 20% of the country’s GDP is said to be contributed by Selangor, the most industrialised state in Malaysia. This is made more interesting by the fact it is being run by a political coalition that is in opposition at the federal level.

Although Spain is not technically a federation, it certainly operates very much like one, in which self-government is granted to its autonomous states. And the principle behind any federation – or decentralised government – is that unity and regional diversity can be accommodated by distributing power among central and regional governments in a manner constitutionally safeguarding the existence and authority of each.

Regions and states are bound to possess unique characteristics that are different from their counterparts, whether this is along ethnic, linguistic, religious or simply, territorial lines. The very purpose of having a federation would be to recognise these differences, and accommodate for these by allowing some degree of autonomy and self-rule.

After all, if one adheres to the idea of subsidiarity – that states and local governments are best placed to respond to issues of local concern, being closest to the problem at hand – then federal intervention is only necessary for extra-territorial issues like defence and foreign affairs. Taking Malaysia as an example, local leaders in Sarawak would be better placed to advise on the education needs of its village children compared to the federal leaders in Putrajaya, although the latter may have good intentions.

However, in granting greater autonomy to regions or states, the federal government would quite naturally feel the pinch of sacrificing some degree of control. Some even argue that centralising control is more efficient for policymaking and management of the economy. In fact, this is exactly what Britain intended when it first established the Federated Malay States, which resulted in Selangor being deprived of much of its previous independence and initiative in public affairs. State autonomy is also the main reason the Unfederated Malay States initially refused to join the federation.

But to allay these fears, it is worth noting that one of the preconditions of successful decentralisation is a high degree of central state capacity, which means the federal government need not fear that its powers are removed altogether. Coordination between different layers of government is important, so here the federal government would play an important regulatory role to ensure good governance in the decentralisation process: is there transparency, accountability and adequate representation at each level?

However, herein lies the dilemma. If autonomy has been granted, yet the state continues to demand for more, what then? One argument is that if autonomy has already been granted, the federal government cannot then proceed to suppress local autonomy in order to avoid the break-up of a state – then there would be no point in federating in the first place. On the other hand, if the autonomous states were being treated well, why would they push for independence? In the case of Spain, Catalonia was historically an independent region with its own language, laws and customs. The economic crisis exacerbated matters, leading to wealthy Catalonia seen as propping up the poorer regions.

This is why there needs to be a balance struck between the amount of autonomy given to regions or states, and their representation at the national level. While the former would satisfy the element of self-rule, the latter fulfils that of shared rule, in which the region in question would be more than adequately represented in national decision-making matters. On this note, Malaysia’s states are represented by both parliamentarians in the Dewan Rakyat and senators in the Dewan Negara. However, over the years the proportion of state-appointed representatives to centre-appointed senators has drastically reduced from 28:22 to 26:32. A robust Senate would mean states’ interests are protected whenever new legislation is debated; otherwise, they might feel a bad deal was being made centrally without concern for their regions’ interests.

These are fascinating events, which we in Malaysia – and certainly, Southeast Asia – must learn from. There is no one formula by which a federation successfully contains its multiethnic or territorial differences, since each has its own unique history, cultural values and laws. Nevertheless, it is worth investigating the circumstances under which decentralisation succeeds or fails. Federalism can coexist with and promote democracy, but only when the states in question believe that they have been fairly and adequately treated by the nation they consider themselves a part of.

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