If voting could change anything: the 2012 Catalan Elections

A vote next week will probably enable the controversial referendum on independence in Catalonia. Madrid continues to try to thwart the move, while demonstrations – and statistics – tell a different story

This year, on September 11th, the largest demonstration in European history took place in Barcelona: 1.6 million people (one out of every five Catalan citizens) marched peacefully to demand Catalonia's political independence from the Kingdom of Spain. They were of all ages and came from all social classes. The only slogan they cared to shout was 'Independència!', a call dovetailed with the only flag they chose to wave: the estelada, that is, the Catalan flag with a separatist star popped on top (adapted from the Cuban independence flag by Catalan separatists back in 1908). The demonstration had been convened by a progressive non-party grass roots organisation called the Catalan National Assembly.

Demotix/Joan Sorolla. Catalans protest for independence from Spain.

Anyone looking for clues as to how such a massive show of popular force had come about, wouldn't have found any by examining the composition of the Catalan parliament. At the time, the majority party – the centre-right/right coalition (Convergència i Unió or CiU) – was regionalist with a nationalist veneer; the second-largest party, the Catalan branch of the Spanish socialist party (PSC), was avowedly federalist, though had never done much to prove it. The third party was the strictly unionist Catalan affiliate of Spain's ruling conservative party (PP), and the fourth was Iniciativa per Catalunya (IC), ex-Communists now self-described as eco-socialists. Only the fifth- and sixth-largest parties, both left-wing, were explicitly independentist (ERC and SI).

Two days after the demonstration, the leader of CiU (and president of Catalonia), Artur Mas, was due to address a gathering of business people in Madrid. He took the opportunity to declare that the masses attending the march that week had changed the political situation: they clearly wanted 'their own project', and for this project to become a reality, Catalonia needed 'state structures'.

A fortnight later, Mas called the snap elections which are now due; he then stated that if his party won an overall majority – unlike the simple majority it has now – he would organise a binding referendum for independence (which would also take place, he added, if the election resulted in a combined majority of CiU with other pro-referendum parties). He also promised that once 'the main objective' had been achieved, he would resign from politics.

Since then, popular support for independence has been running at between 51% and 57%, depending on which survey you read. Separatist flags hang from balconies all over the country, not least in Barcelona. The unionist parties – especially the PP – far from trying to negotiate some kind of deal, have resorted to the use of visibly frenetic scare tactics which have ranged from assurances that the Catalans, under independence, would lose their pensions and EU membership, through to mysteriously untraceable police documents accusing Mas of corruption. (There have also been military threats, which deserve an article of their own.)

The polls show Mas with an increased vote, but still a simple majority, with second place reserved for the left-independentist ERC (which could double its votes) or, maybe, IC. At all events, it seems inevitable that these three pro-referendum parties will win some 95-98 seats in the 135-seat Catalan parliament: enough to guarantee a referendum on secession in the near future.

All this has been a long time coming (the contemporary Catalan-Spanish conflict has its roots in the Bourbons' violent usurpation of the Principality in 1714). A recent key factor was the rejection by Madrid's Constitutional Court – notorious for the political bias of its judges – of the third Catalan Statute of Autonomy in 2010 (it had been voted for by 93% of the Catalan parliament, back in pre-crisis 2006). A million Catalans demonstrated against the decision in July 2010, and were ignored by almost everybody except each other. After that, independentism started to be seen as the only way forward or even out. (This was the moment when Artur Mas says he realised secession was inevitable.)

Of course, the fact that Catalonia suffers the highest fiscal drainage of any region in Europe has counted for something: according to the Wall Street Journal, the country is down 200 billion euros since 1986, at 2,251 euros per citizen per year. And all Catalans get back for this excessive shelling-out is a persistently anti-Catalan mood generated in unionist media and political circles – plus boycotts of Catalan goods, attempts to reduce the use of Catalan in schools, prohibition of national sports teams, etc.

Demotix/Joan Sorolla. Demonstration in Barcelona on September 11th, Catalan National Day.

Last April, the prestigious American economist Kenneth Rogoff declared that an independent Catalonia would be one of the 'wealthiest countries in the world'. No wonder, then, that a majority of Catalonia's 31,000 small to medium enterprises are pro-independence (66%, according to their own umbrella organisation).

Mas, on the other hand, has been accused – not least by the Guardian's Barcelona stringer, Stephen Burgen – of being an opportunist who is both fomenting and riding the independentist wave. I suspect the truth is a good deal more complex.

To begin with, an increasing number of independentist voters have supported him over the last several years, not believing that the much smaller pro-independence party ERC was about to go anywhere fast. This is partly because it has been an open secret among the CiU faithful that many leading members of the party have long been independentists. (I met the president of CiU's parliamentary group, Oriol Pujol, on a radio show last year. Off the air, he said: 'I want independence, but the party I belong to doesn't, not yet'. I later found this attitude to be typical of many CiU politicians.) Second, unless Mas is a very good actor indeed, the tone of his post-demonstration speeches is of a sincerity all but impossible to doubt (his pre-demo speeches were quite a different matter).

Certainly, to judge by its increasingly nervous reactions, Madrid doesn't doubt this sincerity for one moment. It is true that if Mas hadn't picked up the glove thrown to his government by a sizeable chunk of its own people, he would have committed political suicide. But he must also have known that the alternative was a non-stop flogging from the unionist media ever since that first key speech of his in Madrid.

In the end, to be sure, if we want to know what's going on in Catalonia, all we have to do is let her citizens vote, not only in the upcoming elections but, above all, in the probably imminent referendum for independence. Why then has the Spanish government, in the words of its spokeswoman, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, insisted that it will do 'everything in its power' to block this referendum? Answers on a postcard, please.

About the author

Matthew Tree has lived in Barcelona since 1984. He has published novels, short stories, an autobiography and several essays, in Catalan, and has a regular column in the El Punt Avui newspaper. A collection of his articles and essays published in English appeared earlier this year.