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EPA/Quique García

Catalonia’s independence referendum: how the disputed vote led to crackdown

An old refrain often used about Spain is that in the country “everything is politicised”. This became apparent following the terrorist attacks in Barcelona and Cambrils in mid-August 2017.

As the nation sought an explanation for the attacks, the debate rapidly became wrapped up in the ongoing dispute between Madrid and the regional Catalan government in Barcelona. The blame game became framed in Catalan or Spanish terms. For some, the Catalan police became national heroes, while for others they had, through negligence, apparently failed to prevent the attacks. The disagreement is only partially about the aftermath of the attacks. It’s also part of the push for independence in Catalonia, which has become a permanent feature of the political landscape in Spain.

The Catalan parliament passed a measure in September officially announcing its plan to hold a referendum on October 1. If Yes won on the day, the parliament said, it would declare independence from Spain within 48 hours. The Madrid government responded by declaring the vote illegal. The Spanish government is now attempeting to prevent the referendum from taking place. It has ordered police raids on key Catalan government buildings to seize documents related to the vote and had Catalan officials arrested.

As the date of the contested vote approaches, an extremely tense situation has unfolded. The Catalan government has accused Madrid of cutting off its finances to stop it from funding the referendum. Meanwhile, Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy has called for the “escalation of radicalism and disobedience” to end. Tense scenes have played out between pro-independence protesters and the police. But so far the impact of the protests has been modest.

Small town power

Spain has consistently refused to recognise the wide demand for a referendum to decide the issue of Catalan independence. That meant that the 2015 elections in Catalonia became something of a substitute for such a vote.

A total of 47.8% of the votes were cast for pro-independence parties. But the weighting of the electoral system, with its anti-urban bias, allowed the pro-independence lists to win a clear majority of seats in the Catalan parliament.

Support for independence is overwhelmingly dominant in the small towns and rural areas of Catalonia, but it’s a minority trend in Barcelona. It was the pro-independence government elected largely by the regional vote that called the October referendum.

Spanish police raid the Catalan Ministry of Economy in Barcelona. EPA

Post-election analysis revealed that support for independence wasn’t as clear cut as it seemed. A fifth of voters who voted for independence parties in September 2015 did so with the intention of forcing the Spanish government to negotiate a new political and economic arrangement for Catalonia, rather than explicitly for independence. Therefore, even the 47.8% of the vote obtained in September 2015 was far from being a solid and unambiguous pro-secessionist vote.

The ambivalence of the electoral result enabled both supporters and opponents of independence to claim victory. One side had won more parliamentary seats, with opponents securing more of the total votes cast.

This battle of legitimacy has been played out in Catalonia since 2015, which explains why Catalan independence groups are seeking resolution – and legitimacy – through a binding referendum.

A movement stalled

Support for an independent Catalan state rocketed from around 12% in 2005 to figures approaching 50% at times after 2012. This surge was in part a backlash against the wider crisis happening in Spain. Resentment had been growing in Catalonia around issues of culture, language and identity since the mid-2000s but the economic crisis hit the region hard. It had long been one of richest territories in Spain. Economic resentment fed into pre-existing grievances and support for independence intensified.

Rajoy: drawing a line or lighting a match? EPA

Supporters of Catalan independence were angry, frustrated and demanded recognition, but their cause was also a vehicle of protest against a Spanish government perceived as using the crisis to recentralise political power. A clash of political cultures – centralising in the case of Madrid and resistance to it from Barcelona – added a new layer to the conflict.

The rapid growth of support for the independence of Catalonia seemed an unstoppable wave. Breaking from Spain was merely a matter of time. Despite the ambivalence of the September 2015 result, the pro-independence parties claimed they had a mandate, even promising an independent Catalonia within 18 months. This strategic error was one of many in a movement that has been trapped in a cycle of wishful thinking. Pro-independence leaders have promised a Catalan state every year since 2012 without delivering.

A question of legitimacy

The problem for the proposed referendum of October 1 is that nobody except supporters of Catalan independence consider it legitimate. The Catalan opposition parties reject it, as does the Spanish government. The Spanish government has, in turn, pledged to block this referendum attempt with the full judicial apparatus of the state.

A meaningful referendum on October 1 is now one of the least likely outcomes. The Madrid authorities have placed enormous pressure on local politicians to prevent any vote resembling a referendum taking place in Catalonia. International silence, particularly from leading European countries, has only facilitated its cause.

The Catalan movement for independence has shown itself to be capable of enormous annual public display each September since 2012, with often a million or more protesting in the streets of Barcelona. However, the movement has proven itself incapable of producing other forms of political responses and the recent actions of the Madrid government have revealed the profound limitations of symbolic protest.

The failure to hold a meaningful referendum in October will represent a clear and dramatic defeat for the Catalan independence movement. However, the grievances that drive the desire for independence have barely begun to be addressed by Madrid. A solid 40% or so of Catalans have broken with Spain in political and psychological terms and modest concessions from Madrid will no longer change this. Real political negotiations between Madrid and Barcelona are now needed.

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